War Emblem, the winner of the 128th Kentucky Derby, was a horse that earned the name “Hannibal Lecter” from trainer Bob Baffert due to the nearly black colt’s love of biting at other people and horses. Bred in Kentucky by Charles Nuckols, he was by a son of Mr. Prospector and the undefeated Personal Ensign, Our Emblem, and out of a Lord of War mare named Sweetest Lady. Apparently the colt didn’t take after his dam.
At 2, the plucky colt raced for owner Russell Reineman and trainer Frank Springer, starting 3 times and winning twice. At 3, he started off with a 5th and 6th place effort in the Lecomte and Risen Star. Returning to Illinois, he won an allowance by 10¾ lengths prior to a front running wire-to-wire win in the Illinois Derby by 6¼. Catching the eye of Prince Ahmed bin Salman, owner of the Thoroughbred Corporation, he purchased 90% of the colt 3 weeks before the Kentucky Derby for nearly $1 million.
Turned over to trainer Bob Baffert, the front-running specialist faced 17 other challengers in the Run for the Roses. In front of 145,033 spectators on a sunny day, jockey Victor Espinoza piloted the 21-1 longshot to the lead. Able to set easy fractions, the temperamental colt powered away from the field in the stretch to win in a time of 2:01.13, becoming the first gate to wire winner since Winning Colors in 1988. War Emblem’s victory was the first of three for Victor Espinoza, the first for the Thoroughbred Corporation, and the third in six years for Bob Baffert.
Two weeks later, they were all treated to another gate-to-wire performance in the Preakness. Going into the Belmont with another Triple Crown chance on the line, Baffert’s dreams were quickly over at the start when his charge stumbled at the break. Unable to get comfortable behind the other horses, he fought to take the lead, wearing himself out and falling back to finish eighth.
The following month, his owner, Prince Ahmed passed away due to a heart attack, two weeks before War Emblem would have his final win in the Haskell, galloping easily under the wire 3 ½ lengths in front. He raced twice more, in the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic, finishing 6th and 10th. Even with the final two losses, War Emblem still earned 3YO Male Championship honors.
Sold to the Yoshida family of Japan for $17.7 million for breeding, he turned out to be just as difficult to get to breed as he was to try to get to be friendly. Pulling out all of the stops, every year they would try to come up with a different trick to get him to breed. Some were successful, others weren’t. Throughout his stallion career, he sired 120 foals, with 82 winners, and 9 stakes winners. Robe Tissage, the Champion 2YO Filly in Japan in 2012 was his most successful runner.
Upon his being pensioned from breeding, the Yoshida’s graciously donated War Emblem to Old Friends for a return to the United States. When he arrived, he refused to cover mares required by quarantine law to make sure that he was free of contagious breeding diseases. As a result, he was freed from quarantine once he was gelded. Retired to live out his days at Old Friends, the nearly black horse still is one to watch out for, as he can still be sneaky.
(Blanket courtesy of KDM archives)