Going for Three

If you're in Manhattan feeling frisky and need a workout this Saturday morning, leave your empty beer glass on the mahogany in Martin's and briskly walk the five furlongs to Penn Station. There. All done. Now board the 10:31 train, hunt for a cozy spot in the bar car and unfurl your fresh copy of The Daily Racing Form. A Bloody Mary? By all means. Care for a spirited debate on the merits of fresh horses versus hard-raced veterans with the straw-hatted, binoculared stranger lounging across the aisle? Have at it. While the row houses of Queens slide by your window, you might also put in a good word for Forward Pass -- beaten by a length in 1968 by Stage Door Johnny -- or that beautiful ride Ruben Hernandez gave Coastal in 1979.

In forty minutes, you'll find yourself at Belmont Park, on the doorstep of history and in select company.

There's been a lot of talk in recent weeks and months about how horse racing has lost its allure, about the decline of a sport that once quickened the national pulse. After all, it's been almost three decades since Secretariat graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. A few weeks ago, the last living Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew, graduated to horse heaven -- 25 years to the day after winning the Kentucky Derby. Pundits say that the bent-nosed geezers and hopeless bums who limp out to the track these days are vestiges of the old glory. Americans now wallow in the noise and flash of stock-car racing; they're in love with Tiger Woods; they'll pay a small fortune for hockey tickets, but not a nickel to see the nags run. On Kentucky Derby day, the country stirs itself for two minutes to watch the three-year-olds circle Churchill Downs, then returns its gaze to more important things, like the bunion on Shaquille O'Neal's big toe or Randy "Macho Man" Savage's new hairdo.

The faithful who will gather Saturday afternoon at Belmont have a different view. In the main, they will be rooting for a racehorse named War Emblem to win the Belmont Stakes -- and not just because so many of them will be holding tickets on him. It has been 24 years since Affirmed (who's also dead) became the eleventh and last Triple Crown champion by beating valiant Alydar in the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. And although racing fans are now regarded as crotchets -- an oddball breed akin to musty Shakespearean scholars or collectors of antique china -- they know the time is high for spiritual renewal.

If War Emblem can add the Belmont to his startling resumé, the rest of the world won't give a damn. But that doesn't matter. He will give the quirky (and often literary-minded) devotees of horse racing something they've long craved: a good story with a peculiar beginning and a divine finish. Already, the protagonist is an unlikely hero, and in the intriguing middle stages of the tale the supporting characters have proved provocative.

Before May 4, War Emblem was seen in thoroughbred circles as a rank outsider. He'd won three ordinary races in New Orleans and Chicago in six tries; he was sent to the post on April 6, in the lowly Illinois Derby, as a 6-1 long shot. But when the Kentucky-bred bay colt surprised everyone by winning that race wire-to-wire, he turned some heads. Before you could say "Seabiscuit," a deep-pocketed Saudi prince named Ahmed bin Salman put a million bucks on the table and purchased nine-tenths of War Emblem from an 84-year-old Midwestern industrialist named Russell Reineman, who said he needed the money to save his failing business. Bin Salman then enlisted the services of the celebrated Southern California horse trainer Bob Baffert, who twice before has had horses come within a length of winning the Triple Crown.

Chapter Two was sheer soap opera: Amid a chorus of jeers from barn and clubhouse that the prince and Baffert had bought their way into the field at the last minute, War Emblem promptly stole away with the Kentucky Derby at 20-1 odds. In an atmosphere where rich Arab sheiks are less popular than ever, bin Salman's winning grin in the Churchill Downs winner's circle irked many, and even the refreshingly irreverent Baffert -- a guy who once stuck the silver Preakness bowl on his head -- seemed to attract a new army of enemies. The other owners and trainers vowed that Victor Espinosa and War Emblem wouldn't get loose on the lead in the Preakness. As it happened, they didn't need to. At Pimlico, on May 18, Emblem put front-runner Menacing Dennis away with three furlongs to run, then held off onrushing long shot Magic Weisner to win the black-eyed Susans and a shot at immortality.

When the Prince smiled this time, you could hear the gnashing of teeth from Santa Anita to Gulfstream Park.

On Saturday comes the moment of truth. After winning the Derby and the Preakness with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998, then finishing a close second at the Belmont with each of them, Baffert thinks the ultimate triumph is finally at hand -- the naysayers and the envious be damned. "I like my chances," he announced last week. "The third time's a charm."

If so, War Emblem will join legends such as War Admiral, Citation and Secretariat, and horse-racing fans -- wherever they are -- will have a story for the ages, combining poverty and wealth, improbability and fate, horseflesh and fantasy. Winning won't be easy for War Emblem, but if you're not doing anything Saturday, catch that train to Belmont. Failing that, forgo the ice dancing from Vienna just this once, and tune the TV to history at a gallop.

This isn't Montreal. Or Ottawa. It isn't even Minneapolis. But every evening you see (and hear) them out there, banging slapshots off the crossbar, jostling each other, shouting in joy. The McDonnell brothers -- Patrick, twelve, Nick, ten, and Joe, nine -- are hockey-crazed lads, and they've taken their passion to the street in East Denver's quiet Congress Park neighborhood.

The regulation goal? Nick bought that last year with his birthday money: $30.99 at Target. The puck? Five bucks more. The sticks? Well, Dad sprang for those. Matt McDonnell, the finance manager at a car dealership, grew up in hockey country -- Pittsburgh and Boston -- played the in-line version of the game in Denver in the '90s and has passed his enthusiasm on to the boys. They even go to some Avalanche games, thanks to a school friend and to their grandfather, who has season tickets.

The McDonnells' porch and yard are happily littered with soccer balls, baseball gloves, tennis racquets and sundry other sporting goods, but there's no mistaking where their real loyalties lie. "Hockey is a ten," Nick reports. "Ten!" Joe affirms. "It's my favorite, too," Patrick says. "There's a lot of contact, and it's a fun game -- to relax with."

So true do these young hearts beat that even in one of the most crucial moments in Denver hockey history -- last Monday night, when the Wings and Avs tied 1-1 late in the third period of game five -- two of the McDonnell boys remained outside on the corner, one wearing skates, the other sneakers, banging their own imagined game-winners home.

By the time Avs-Wings five went into overtime, the temptation grew too great and the failing light too weak for the boys to resist. They went inside and plopped themselves on the couch in front of their 35-inch TV set. Just in time, as it turned out. A couple of minutes into OT, no less a giant than Peter Forsberg -- Nick and Patrick's favorite -- ripped the winning shot into the twine, and the boys went to bed happy.

"Hockey's a big deal around here," their mom, Stephanie McDonnell, later allowed. It's provoked school-night bedtime debates (the boys usually win), occasional bouts of sibling rivalry and, last year, even a visit from the police. "Somebody called the cops on us," Nick said, clearly wounded. But justice and good sense prevailed. The policeman took one understanding look at the clan McDonnell and declined to call a penalty. "Be careful, boys," he said, then went on his way.

So the boys are careful to this day -- in everything but their dreams.


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