ELMONT, N.Y. -- A record crowd of 103,222 jammed Belmont Park hoping to see history made Saturday, and they did -- but it wasn't the history everyone expected.
Instead of watching War Emblem become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown in history, they witnessed the biggest upset in the history of the Belmont Stakes by a virtually unknown 70-1 shot named Sarava.
The winning stretch drive, which carried Sarava to a half-length decision over Medaglia d'Oro, will be remembered as a virtual footnote to the Belmont compared to the first seconds of the 1 1/2-mile race. War Emblem, a habitual front-runner, stumbled as the gate opened and wasn't able to fly to the lead as he had done in the successes of his meteoric career.
"It was lost at the start," said a heartbroken trainer Bob Baffert, who has now missed a sweep of the Triple Crown (and the accompanying $5 million bonus) three times in the last six years at Belmont Park. "We were doomed. It was gut-wretching to watch. If I'd had a walkie-talkie, I'd have told (jockey Victor Espinoza) to pull him up."
The severity of War Emblem's trouble at the start will be the subject of sharp post-race debate. The colt was definitely compromised by the bad step he took, and his usual game plan was altered. But he recovered enough to secure good striking position, and on the backstretch he was well positioned to become the first thoroughbred since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Yet in a slowly run race he faded badly and finished eighth, losing by nearly 20 lengths.
If War Emblem's fate, and Baffert's disheartenment, was testimony to the unpredictability of the racing game, so was the presence of trainer Ken McPeek in the winner's circle at Belmont Park. Early in the year, McPeek had the most powerful contingent of 3-year-olds in the nation. Harlan's Holiday had won the Florida Derby. Repent, a powerful stretch-runner, won the Louisiana Derby. Take Charge Lady, a filly, was so good that she was considered a potential challenger to the males. But the McPeek forces gradually fell by the wayside in the Triple Crown series.
Harlan's Holiday ran a lackluster race in the Preakness, and on that day at Pimlico the trainer had to settle for a small consolation prize, winning a minor $79,000 race, the Sir Barton Stakes, with a colt named Sarava. In the aftermath of that triumph, few observers would have declared, "This is a classic winner in the making." But the four-length win was at least good enough for McPeek to give the colt his long-shot chance in the Belmont. He could never have dreamed of the scenario that would assist him.
Sarava was barely noticed here this week, but neither were most of the other contenders, because War Emblem had sole top billing in this New York show. War Emblem had emerged from obscurity to win the Illinois Derby, prompting Baffert and his client Ahmed Salman to purchase him privately, and proceeded to score a front-running 20-to-1 upset at Churchill Downs. Plenty of skeptics dismissed that victory as a fluke, but when War Emblem delivered a dominating performance in the Preakness, he instantly became America's hero. Not only was the sport hungering for a champion, but the public at large wanted to hail a Triple Crown winner after a 24-year hiatus.
All eyes were riveted on the black colt, and when they saw War Emblem stumble, most people understood that the character of the 134th Belmont had changed.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.