- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Jockey Victor Espinoza often faced crowded conditions while driving a Mexico City bus as a teen-ager. Maybe that's why War Emblem often leads the pack.
Espinoza has needed a rear-view mirror to find most rivals in War Emblem's bid to become thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown champion in 24 years by taking Saturday's 134th Belmont Stakes. Only one of 28 colts headed War Emblem during his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories.
Still, the one-time long shot isn't scaring away challengers. Eleven are expected in the Belmont after he faced 17 in the Derby and 11 in the Preakness. A Belmont victory would mean sweeping 39 rivals, shattering War Admiral's 1937 record of 32 as the most to face a Triple Crown champion.
"But he's only seen one of them," trainer Bob Baffert said jokingly.
War Emblem was the first wire-to-wire Derby winner since 1987 before laying second early in the Preakness. War Emblem's closing quarter-mile in 24 2/5 seconds was the fastest ever by an early Derby front-runner. Conversely, War Emblem's opening half-mile in 46 seconds was the fastest in 17 years at the Preakness.
"This horse just wants to run," Espinoza said. "He can't wait for you to let him go. It doesn't matter how far he goes, he still finishes very, very strong."
Espinoza has ridden the coal-black colt perfectly despite never seeing War Emblem until the day before the Derby. The California jockey talked to the colt's previous Midwest riders who were replaced once War Emblem was sold in April. Espinoza knew his greatest challenge was keeping the colt from running too hard too early.
Baffert fired Espinoza after the latter finished third in the 2001 Derby aboard Congaree, but he felt the 30-year-old jockey would have the needed patience aboard War Emblem. Many riders get too excited in major races and might have prompted War Emblem too early, leaving him vulnerable in the stretch.
Baffert and Espinoza watched video from the Churchill Downs barns before the Derby and decided to wait until the stretch before fully urging War Emblem. Espinoza waved the whip by the colt's right eye at the eighth pole when Proud Citizen came near before War Emblem opened a four-length lead.
"The easiest race I ever won in my life," Espinoza said.
A different tactic was needed in the Preakness, where several opponents were obviously entered to wear out War Emblem early. Rather than enter an early speed duel, Espinoza kept War Emblem second until midway along the backstretch before unleashing the colt. It was a risky move given that War Emblem had never won without leading the entire race, but the scheme again worked well when the colt held off two rivals in the Pimlico stretch.
"The Preakness was a little bit of pressure because a lot of people thought we got lucky in the Derby," Espinoza said. "I wanted to prove he's the best horse. I don't consider myself the best rider, but we get very lucky together and we get along."
Espinoza now faces another challenge of outlasting the Belmont's 1 miles the longest distance in U.S. major stakes races. The Belmont is typically a slow opening three-quarters mile, then a sprint for a half-mile, when the winner is often decided before simply riding out the final quarter mile. Espinoza must keep War Emblem among the early leaders without setting a torrid pace or he'll falter in the stretch.
It sounds simple, but the pressure of an expected 90,000 at Belmont Park and a national audience can intimidate jockeys into mistakes. Seven straight Triple Crown wannabes have lost with several riders moving too early. Espinoza hasn't talked to three riders in his jock's room that have failed, saying he doesn't want to be influenced by others' styles.
"I try not to think about it. I'm more nervous when I ride a horse at $10,000," he said. "It's fun to do this, especially when every jockey, every trainer, every owner in the world is watching."
Baffert sees Espinoza on the verge of blossoming as a rider. Espinoza was second in the Preakness and Belmont last year while finishing 11th in national earnings with $10.3million. He won the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff aboard 55-1 long shot Spain. Competing against the nation's best jockey colony daily for the last five years has readied Espinoza for the biggest challenge.
"Riding against the best jockeys is like playing golf with Tiger Woods," Baffert said. "He's becoming a more polished rider. I saw that in [jockey] Kent Desormeaux [aboard 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet]. You win the Derby and you have super bragging rights."


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