They say you never forget your first. That point was driven home for me on Wednesday afternoon when the Old Friends press release landed in my inbox with War Emblem’s obituary.
War Emblem came into my life during a formative point of my pre-teen years when I was still falling in love with racing. The year after getting hooked on racing thanks to Point Given, War Emblem really drove in the point that this was the sport for me.
I still remember getting the Yahoo Groups email that said War Emblem had moved to Bob Baffert’s barn after his Illinois Derby win and was headed to the Kentucky Derby. A bit amazingly in those days, there was also an online replay of War Emblem winning the Illinois Derby and I immediately fell in love with the colt.
A big black stallion rumored to be hard to handle … what pre-teen Black Stallion fan wouldn’t love a horse like that?
I can’t remember who my Kentucky Derby pick was before that point but I was on the War Emblem train from there on. That proved to work well when he redeemed my Derby “loss” from the previous year and then let me experience the excitement of a Triple Crown on the line for the first time when he gritted out a Preakness win.
By the time his Belmont rolled around, I was a War Emblem expert (or so I thought) so I also knew when he stumbled out of the gate in the Belmont that the race was over. In a relief to my parents, I handled that a whole lot better than Point Given’s Derby loss. Likely to my parents’ annoyance, I also started my “can’t leave the house!” racing trend when the Haskell was aired – but stubbornly refusing to leave the house paid off by watching him get back to his winning ways.
When War Emblem retired at the end of 2002 and headed off to Japan I was sad and a bit worried about his future. But even in the early internet days, that quickly ended when someone in Japan promised to keep us updated on him.
Likely thanks to War Emblem it was a few years into his breeding career that I became very interested in equine behavior and reproduction. I credit that near-obsession to learning about his refusal to breed most mares – an interest that has led me on a career path that been the adventure of a lifetime.
Sadly, his refusal to breed most mares led to a “what if” scenario when his foals came out running and proved to be extremely talented.
In all, War Emblem produced 82 winners of 348 races from his 111 runners (out of 121 named foals) including nine stakes winners and 18 stakes horses. Showing just how good he could have been if he would have bred more mares, that small amount of runners also yielded a champion 2-year-old and two other group stakes winners in Japan.
War Emblem returned to his birth state in 2015 when he was pensioned from stallion duties and retired to Old Friends, where he again did things his way. Checking to see when he’d be released from quarantine, I was told it could be a while. It came out later that they’d had to geld him because he refused to breed his two test mares … his last stand against his breeding career.
I was lucky enough to be invited along with Old Friends expert Laura Battles to take photos on Sunday evening and got to spend a few minutes enjoying War Emblem’s company. Both Laura and Michael Blowen were happy to show off War Emblem’s “trick” of racing people for carrots though he may have enjoyed showing it off more than them.
It was obvious the now 21-year-old was enjoying himself as he bucked and played around, even begging when he felt he hadn’t gotten enough carrots. Later in the evening he happily joined us at the other end of the paddock with no cajoling from us. While I’m guessing the bucket full of carrots in our cart probably helped convince him to come over, even when he realized he wasn’t getting anything, he stuck close by and seemed a bit offended when we left him.
It was at that point that I realized if there were a perfect example of a horse being given the “Mr. Misunderstood” title, it would be War Emblem. While known for many years as a horse who didn’t like anything and may be little “crazy,” once you were around him even if just for a few minutes you realized that wasn’t the case.
The Shadai Stallion Station manager said it best when I interviewed him about War Emblem in 2013 … “He is not crazy but a little strong-tempered.”
As I reflect on his career and his life down to the last few days, I’m not sure that there’s a better sentence that fully encompasses exactly who War Emblem was. So with that, I’ll send my final salute to a horse who caught everyone’s imagination and just simply say “Rest in peace, Buddy. Thank you for everything.”