War Emblem is a recognizable name around the world, far beyond the world of horse racing. The American Thoroughbred was strong and fast on the track but a bit disagreeable to people. That didn’t stop him from running more than a dozen races and winning more than half of them.
Two races in particular endeared War Emblem to racing fans and audiences. He won the Kentucky Derby in 2002 and then the Preakness Stakes. A bad start to the Belmont Stakes deterred him from winning the Triple Crown, but he succeeded in bringing fans to racing and reigniting hope for a Triple Crown winner.
The dark bay – nearly black – champion was found dead in the paddock area of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center on March 11, 2020, at the age of 21.
Humble and Temperamental Beginnings
War Emblem was born on February 20, 1999, bred by Charles Nuckols Jr. & Sons in Midway, Kentucky. His sire was Our Emblem and dam was Sweetest Lady. His siblings included the undefeated Personal Ensign and Mr. Prospector.
The dark-colored stallion with a white star was originally campaigned by Russell Reineman and trainer Frank Springer. An attempt to sell him in a 2000 Keeneland yearling sale failed.
War Emblem won his first-ever race at Arlington in October 2001. His only turf race, however, found him finishing in seventh place in the 2001 Manila at Arlington. His third race was at Fair Grounds on the dirt track, though, and he won it.
A Most Winning Year
The most impressive year for War Emblem started with two mediocre finishes, fifth and sixth places in Fair Grounds races in January and February 2002. In March, he won an allowance at Sportsman’s Park
April 2002 saw War Emblem run the Illinois Derby at the Hawthorne Race Course, which he dominated and won by more than six lengths. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Ahmed bin Salman and his thoroughbred company bought a 90% interest in the horse for nearly $1 million, and Bob Baffert took over as his trainer.
Weeks later, War Emblem ran the 128th Kentucky Derby with Victor Espinoza as his jockey. The two met that morning, and the odds were 21-to-1. War Emblem left the gate strong and led for the majority of the race, even pushing out several lengths ahead to cross the finish line.
He headed to the Preakness Stakes two weeks later with Espinoza along for the ride. War Emblem started in a group but quickly found the leader and rode up, rounding the final turn to take the lead and taking that lead to the finish line.
War Emblem went into the 134th Belmont Stakes as a 6-to-5 favorite but stumbled out of the game. He recovered to run toward the front of the pack and into third, but he struggled. With five furlongs to go, he made a run for the lead but couldn’t hold it. Espinoza let him coast after the last turn to finish eighth.
Nearly two months later, War Emblem won the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. He raced another two times that year, including in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but didn’t place.
A Memorable Thoroughbred
War Emblem finished his racing career with seven wins out of 13 starts. He also earned nearly $3.5 million during from 2001 to 2002. He also won the Eclipse Award in 2002 for American Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse.
Later in 2002, the Yoshida family of Japan bought War Emblem for their Shadai Stallion Station in Hokkaido. He sired little more than 100 foals during his time there, but the family hoped for more. He was not only difficult to work with, as he was never a fan of people, he also didn’t have much interest in mares. But of the 119 foals, there were 111 who raced, out of which 80 became winners.
Finally allowed to retire from all duties in 2015, War Emblem returned to the United States and lived his final years at Old Friends in Kentucky.