Perfect Drift was third in the Derby and Medaglia d'Oro fourth. The 1 ¼-mile Derby was timed in 2:01.13 -- the ninth-fastest time of the 128 runnings.
A race with no clear-cut favorite, that was expected to be a tactical experience for a dozen or more of the 18 starters, turned into a no-brainer.
Jockey Victor Espinoza got War Emblem right out to the lead from the No. 5 post position and held that position into the first turn and onto the backstretch, with Proud Citizen a short distance behind and on his outside. When no one came along to pressure his mount, Espinoza slowed down the pace, running the first half mile in 47.04 seconds and 6 furlongs in 1:36.76.
That gave him plenty in reserve for any stretch battle. None really materialized as none of the stretch runners was able to muster a run in the final furlong.
"I had a very good break from the gate," Espinoza said. "That was very important for me, to get away from the gate clean." Asked if he expected to inherit such an easy lead, Espinoza said, "Absolutely not. We talked about riding however the race comes out. By the half-mile pole, I knew the fractions he was running, nobody could catch him." Winning trainer Bob Baffert ducked a question about whether War Emblem would have fought for the lead if challenged in a speed duel. "I told Victor, 'I don't think anyone is going to go with you because they want to win, too."
But he said War Emblem doesn't like getting dirt in his face, so the front was clearly where he wanted to be.
Asked if the win was as easy as it seemed, Espinoza said, "Everything looks easy but it's not. There are 20 horses and 20 jockeys who want to win the race. No matter how it looks, it's tough. It's tough mentally and physically."
There actually were 18 horses and jockeys after the scratch of Buddha on Friday and Baffert's other entrant, Danthebluegrassman, on Derby Day morning.
Espinoza was riding his second Derby. Last year, he rode Congaree for Baffert and finished third. Baffert also saddled Point Given as the favorite last year but that colt finished a well-beaten fifth.
For Baffert, the victory was his third in his 12th try. He also won with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
Among those who failed to rally into the slow pace in the Derby were Wood Memorial second-place finisher Medaglio d'Oro, who finished fourth in the Derby; Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home, who finished sixth, and Florida Derby winner Harlan's Holiday, who was seventh.
The winner of last year's Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Johannesburg, finished tenth, continuing the record that no Juvenile winner has ever gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. Johannesburg's Irish-trained stablemate, Castle Gondolfo, finished 12th and the Godolphin Racing starter, Essence of Dubai, ran ninth.
War Emblem paid $43, $22.80 and $13.60; Proud Citizen $24.60 and $13.40; Perfect Drift $6.40. The $2 exacta returned $1,300.80. The $2 trifecta paid $18,373.20. The $1 superfecta paid $91,764.50.
War Emblem won the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park in his last start. After that race, his owner and trainer expressed no interest in going to the Kentucky Derby. Instead, they sold the colt for an undisclosed amount to Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman in a deal arranged through Baffert. Baffert and Salman arranged the purchase specifically to run War Emblem in the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert Saturday praised former trainer Frank Springer for his cooperation after the sale. "He told me everything about the horse," Baffert said. "And sure enough, the Illinois Derby was the toughest race of them all, the way he beat (then Kentucky Derby favorite) Repent."
Proud Citizen's presence in the Churchill Downs starting gate was equally last-minute. Proud Citizen finished next-to-last in the Santa Anita Derby and it was only his upset victory in the Coolmore Lexington Stkaes at Keeneland in his last outing before the Derby that got him into the big race for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Baffert and Lukas between them dominated Triple Crown racing during the 1990s but until the past three weeks, it appeared both would be watching this year's Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes from the sidelines.
In the winner's circle after the Derby, Baffert said, "See you at the Preakness."
Russell Reineman, who owned War Emblem until shortly after the Illinois Derby, said he wasn't inclined to send the son of Our Emblem to the Kentucky Derby because the race often has too many starters who don't belong and can do permanent damage to a young horse. Baffert and Salman expressed no such reservations.
Before the Illinois Derby, War Emblem had struggled in Louisiana. Moved to the Chicago area in March, he promptly won an allowance race by 10 ¾ lengths, leading every step of the way. He won the Illinois Derby on April 6 in the same fashion, aided by the scratch of the other main speed horse. He originally was purchased for $20,000 in the Keeneland September sales two years ago.
A crowd of 145,033 -- fifth-largest in Derby history--braved new security restrictions that included a ban on bringing food and drinks into the Downs to enjoy the race in picture-perfect weather.