A lack of constituency never has affected Flaming Emperor's ability to govern. With little support at Laurel Race Course yesterday he staged a coup d'etat, overthrowing Castaneto at the wire to win the $100,000 Fort McHenry Handicap.

Taking 1:34 to pull it off, Flaming Emperor tied Laurel's one-mile turf mark. It is the richest victory for him and jockey Clarence "Jo Jo" Ladner.

The means and margin of victory -- about an inch -- seemed to underscore Flaming Emperor's existence. The Maryland-bred was sold for $9,000 as a 2-year-old and has been overlooked even as he developed into one of Maryland's best and most versatile older horses. In eight races in the state this year, he has averaged 18-1 odds, yet has three wins, a second and a third.

He went off yesterday at 10-1, despite second-most weight in a field of 13. He made the most of a well-designed trip that required cool and cunning, but never had the lead until the last stride, when he passed Castaneto (3-1) by a bob of the head. Green Book closed outside to finish third.

"Maybe they'll believe in him now," someone said in the winner's circle, but trainer Kenny Cox knows public perception is slow to change. How well he knows: Flaming Emperor's status has not drawn one new client to his eight-horse stable.

Yesterday's $23 victory, Flaming Emperor's first on turf and third straight overall, increased his wealth to $367,346 -- 40 times what Buddy Cox, the trainer's father, paid for him in 1988.

"People don't know about him," Ladner said, then offered a wake-up call: "He's getting better with age."

Flaming Emperor usually is in or near the lead, but in the speed-packed Fort McHenry the winning stable took a slightly different route. Even though Flaming Emperor had an inside post position, Cox wanted Ladner to ease back to avoid a draining battle for the lead.

River of Sin, the 2-1 favorite from New York, broke fastest from Post 8 and moved to the rail on the clubhouse turn. Ligature was closest to him, and Flaming Emperor was some four lengths behind as he strode into the backstretch.

When Ligature challenged River of Sin approaching the far turn, Flaming Emperor loomed closer in third but had horses all around him. One of them was Castaneto, who advanced outside around the turn to challenge Ligature, while River of Sin struggled to keep up.

Ligature was tough to displace, but Castaneto finally passed him with a half-furlong to go. By then Flaming Emperor -- whom Ladner had saved until the stretch -- was breaking free from the pack under a stiff left hand. Had his late burst begun one stride later, he wouldn't have won.

"I didn't think he was going to get there," said Cox. Nor did a few thousand others who again sold his horse short.