Victor Espinoza, has ridden War Emblem to victory in two legs of racing's Triple Crown.

Victor Espinoza, has ridden War Emblem to victory in two legs of racing's Triple Crown.

Steve Haskin Belmont Feature: Riders on the Storm

Victor Espinoza and Alfredo Juarez, Jr. were born in Mexico City three years apart. Both had family members involved in racing – Espinoza's brother, Jose, has been a regular rider in New York, while Juarez' father rides on the New Mexico circuit. Both Espinoza and Juarez broke their maiden at Hippodromo de las Americas in Mexico before coming to America to follow their dream. Espinoza journeyed to Northern California, while Juarez went even farther north, settling in at Emerald Downs near Seattle, Wash.

Jamie Theriot was born in Arnaudville, La., deep in Cajun country. His father, Harold, has been a trainer on the Louisiana circuit for more than 20 years. Jamie learned to ride at the bush tracks in Carencro, La.

Larry Sterling, Jr., the son of trainer Larry Sterling, was born in Arcadia, Calif. and spent almost his entire childhood at Santa Anita. He took out his jockey's licence at age 16 and began riding Quarter Horses before turning to Thoroughbreds.

Fate would link these four riders in ways far beyond their wildest imagination. All would share the feeling of sitting atop a wild, sleek, black colt named War Emblem. But in the end, only one would ride with him into history and possible immortality.

While Espinoza took Northen California by storm, then continued his meteoric rise in Southern California, Juarez remained at Emerald Downs and also rode at Turf Paradise in the winter. At the end of the 2000 season, he moved his tack to Chicago, where he had good success at Sportsman's Park.

It was there that Juarez teamed up the following year with a wild, rambunctious 2-year-old, trained by Frank "Bobby" Springer. It was obvious from the beginning that the ill-tempered War Emblem was going to require a great deal of work.

Espinoza, by now, had catapulted into the national spotlight, riding The Thoroughbred Corp's Spain to an upset victory at 55-1 in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Juarez' claim to fame at that point was a dead-heat victory aboard Rumsonontheriver in the grade III Hawthorne Derby. Little did he know in the spring of 2001 that the 2-year-old problem child he was working with was destined for great things.

For Espinoza, War Emblem and Hawthorne Race Course were light years from the world of fame and glory he now inhabited. Although fate was about to take a several strange twists, War Emblem, for now, belonged to Alfredo Juarez.

"He was a pretty green horse in the beginning," Juarez said. "But you could see right away he had talent. Before his first race, he dropped me in the paddock and they had to scratch him. Then, the next time, he started acting goofy again, but luckily the pony was right alongside, so the outrider was able to grab hold of him. I wound up putting a lot of work into the horse, trying to teach him to relax and settle down."

In his career debut, on Oct. 4 at Arlington Park, War Emblem won going wire to wire by 1 3/4 lengths, covering the mile in 1:39 1/5. Springer, who likes trying his horses on the grass at some point, according to Juarez, put him in the one-mile Manila Stakes 16 days later, where he finished a well-beaten seventh. When Springer shipped his horses down to Fair Grounds in late fall, Juarez decided to remain in Chicago and ride at Hawthorne before heading to Sunland Park in New Mexico for the remainder of the winter. He could not have envisioned what lay ahead for his hot-headed 2-year-old.

The mount on War Emblem was turned over to Jamie Theriot. It didn't take Theriot long to discover the time bomb that was ticking inside the black colt. "He was good in his stall, but once you got him out of the barn and tacked him up, you really had to keep your eye on him," Theriot said. "He had a lot of play in him, and he was always trying to bite the pony and rear up. I worked him a couple of times and, man, did he start to come around big-time."

In his first start at Fair Grounds, War Emblem, on Lasix for the first time, came from fifth to win a mile allowance race going away by 4 1/2 lengths. "At the three-eighths pole, I couldn't hold him any longer, and when I gave him his head he just circled the field and won easily," Theriot said."

Although he finished fifth in the LeComte Stakes in his next start, Theriot felt it was an excellent effort, coming off a two-month layoff, going head and head the whole way, and still getting beat only 2 1/4 lengths by the highly promising Easyfromthegitgo. In the Risen Star, Springer decided to try to rate him, and when Theriot put a stranglehold on him, the colt fought him the entire way, eventually dropping back to finish seventh behind one of the early Kentucky Derby favorites, Repent. "Fighting me like that just took everything out of him," Theriot said.

It was now time for Springer to head back to Chicago and Sportsman's Park. Fate was about to deal the first blow to one of War Emblem's riders. "Mr. Springer begged me to go with him," Theriot said, "but I was scared to go up there. I'd never been to Chicago and didn't know anything about the track and didn't know anyone there."

So, War Emblem returned to Chicago and was reunited with Juarez. "When I got on him for the Illinois Derby prep I couldn't believe it was the same horse," Juarez said. "He was 100 percent a different horse. We just cruised around there (winning by 10 3/4 lengths). I told Bobby afterward this horse is so much more professional than he was last year."

All was looking good for Juarez leading up to the Illinois Derby until fate stepped in once again. "I wanted to ride him back in the Illinois Derby, but my agent felt I should ride this California horse (Fonz's), who looked like he had promise," Juarez said. "To tell you the truth, I can't even remember his name. When War Emblem romped again, sure I was angry. But I was more angry at myself for not speaking my mind and making my own decision. I should have insisted on staying with this horse, especially after all the work I had put in with him last year."

With Juarez going off War Emblem, Springer replaced him with Larry Sterling Jr., who guided him to an easy wire-to-wire 6 1/4-length victory over Repent. But any grandiose dreams Sterling might have had disappeared a few days later. Just like that, his new-found ticket to fame was gone.

It is four weeks later. War Emblem is now owned by The Thoroughbred Corp and trained by Bob Baffert after being sold by Russell Reineman for $900,000 (while retaining 10-percent interest). Baffert had bought the horse despite the presence of ankle chips, which had deterred several other perspective buyers. The new rider is Victor Espinoza, who had had his ups and downs with Baffert the previous year on Congaree and Officer. As Espinoza guides War Emblem to a wire-to-wire upset victory in the Kentucky Derby, a frustrated Juarez and Sterling can only watch on TV in the jocks' room at Sportsman's Park, while Theriot watches a thousand miles away in the jocks' room at Evangeline Downs, which is a million miles away from Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

"It was satisfying in a way to see him win ," Juarez said, "but I was also frustrated and angry. Before the race, I told the other jocks, 'You know, if goes slow enough early, he could win this.' When they turned for home, I started riding him myself. I'm yelling, 'Come on, boy; come on, boy.' There was a lot of satisfaction knowing I had something to do with this horse, working with him so closely early in his career. But, on the other hand, it was frustrating knowing that it could have been me up there. We all dream of riding in the Kentucky Derby and winning, and here is my horse winning the race and I'm not on him. When will I ever come that close again to winning the Kentucky Derby? Now, here he is going for the Triple Crown."