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The making of a star, race by race
To many, War Emblem came out of nowhere when he won the Kentucky Derby at 20-1 and followed with a win in the Preakness Stakes.
But while the focus was on early Derby favorites such as Siphonic, Repent, Johannesburg, and Harlan's Holiday, War Emblem's quiet ascendance went on outside the public view.
One trainer and three jockeys whom casual racing fans probably never heard of guided War Emblem's development. Work by work, race by race, the groundwork for his sudden leap into fame was laid. Trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer, with help along the way from riders Alfredo Juarez Jr., Jamie Theriot, and Larry Sterling, tamed War Emblem's wild streak, figured out what he would and would not do in a race, and gave this colt his chance to be great.
The laborious process culminated in an Illinois Derby victory so brilliant that it led to War Emblem being sold, costing Springer the horse. But the process really began last September . . .
Maiden race, mile, turf
ARLINGTON PARK, Sept. 8, 2001 - War Emblem made it as far as the Arlington paddock in his first attempt at racing. As jockey Alfredo Juarez Jr. was given a leg up, War Emblem reared and pirouetted, throwing Juarez and breaking free from his handlers.
War Emblem rushed out of the paddock and ran onto a fenced path that cuts through an Arlington parking lot and into the backstretch area.
War Emblem had been a headstrong colt in his training. He sometimes would buck and rear coming out of his barn to train, and once on the track, he often harassed the pony that accompanied him. Even so, Springer, a meticulous horseman, thought War Emblem had been properly schooled for his first start.
"He was always full of himself, but what happened was kind of a surprise to everyone," said Springer. "He'd been in the paddock every day."
War Emblem was scratched. At least he avoided injury. "He just ran back to the barn," said Springer. "We got lucky."
Maiden race, mile
Result: Won by 1 3/4 lengths
ARLINGTON PARK, Oct. 4 - This time, there were no paddock antics.
Juarez had worked War Emblem from the gate and had gained insight into the colt's quirks from his brother, Alberto, who regularly galloped War Emblem.
"He galloped really aggressive," Juarez said. "He could be a little silly, kicking, and kind of mean."
War Emblem drew the rail for his debut, a tough spot for a first-timer, especially in a one-turn mile race, where he would have to run down a long chute leading onto the main track.
Springer generally trains for stamina and does not press his 2-year-olds, and he said he had never put any serious speed into War Emblem. Nevertheless, the colt went right to the lead.
"He was sharp," Juarez said. "He broke and made the lead, but I held him and waited. I started riding him in the stretch. When he felt another horse behind him, he started running again. At the finish, he was still looking around, waiting for horses."
War Emblem had run a half-mile in about 45 seconds, a sizzling pace for a 2-year-old in a distance race, but he showed he could maintain that high cruising speed and still have something left for his finish. He won by 1 3/4 lengths, and track regulars buzzed. How could a horse trained by Springer and owned by Russell Reineman, popular connections on the Chicago circuit, go off at 16-1?
Springer thought the price was fine, since he had backed up his high opinion of War Emblem at the betting windows. "That was kind of my Kentucky Derby right there," he said.
Manila Stakes, mile, turf
Result: Seventh by 17 1/2 lengths
ARLINGTON PARK, Oct. 20 - Barely two weeks had passed since War Emblem's maiden win. "I got stupid," Springer said, "and ran him on turf."
War Emblem had breezed adequately on grass, relaxed in his breeze, and finishing strongly.
But he still hadn't mastered that skill in races.
He dueled on the lead in the Manila, but midway through the race he began to fall back and faded to seventh, beaten more than 17 lengths on yielding turf.
"He never got in the bridle," Juarez said. "When he got in behind other horses, he lost everything. He had no focus."
"That race was my mistake, not his," Springer said.
Result: Won by 4 1/2 lengths
FAIR GROUNDS, Nov. 23 - War Emblem shipped out of Chicago in early November and moved into his second home, Fair Grounds, where he continued to be a handful in the morning. Since Juarez had stayed in Chicago, Springer needed a new rider.
He turned to Jamie Theriot, a promising young Louisiana-based jockey. "The horse was still kind of a big clown," Springer said. "He'd scare one of those older riders right off of him. Jamie had courage."
Said Theriot, "People in Chicago, they said I was crazy riding this horse."
"One day, Frank just asked me to work him," said Theriot. "Frank told me stories about his funny ways. But we got along great. When I got on him, I let him know I was the boss. I'd correct him if he did something wrong.
"The way this horse trained up to that race, I did think he'd win. "I loved him there."
This was War Emblem's first trip around two turns, and his first time racing on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix. And for the first time, War Emblem did not go right to the lead. Theriot settled him outside and just off the early pace, but by the time he hit the backstretch, War Emblem had dragged Theriot to the front.
He did not look back, widening his margin for the rest of the trip to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
"I told Frank, this is one of the best horses I've ever had," Theriot said. "He is just not matured yet."
Lecomte Stakes, mile
Result: Fifth by 2 1/4 lengths.
FAIR GROUNDS, Jan. 26, 2002 - It was a frustrating two months for Springer, who waited and waited for another allowance race in which War Emblem could run. He never found one.
"After you win [a first-level allowance] with a 3-year-old, you're clipped, done," Springer said.
Meanwhile, War Emblem's two-turn win, combined with his striking physical presence, made him attractive to buyers hunting for 3-year-old prospects. Yes, the horse was for sale. And Springer did not want to do anything to compromise War Emblem's physical condition if he was going to fetch big money.
"For about two weeks we just galloped," Theriot said.
Nothing came of the prospective deals. War Emblem, it turned out, could not pass a routine veterinary exam because he had bone chips in his legs.
Springer targeted the Lecomte Stakes, which drew an unspectacular field, but once which included horses more seasoned than War Emblem. "With the little problems I had then, I didn't feel like I could drill him to death getting him ready," Springer said.
Breaking from the inside, Theriot did not have the luxury of waiting to see what the rest of the field would do. He let War Emblem run away from the gate and, when his principal pace rival had trouble at the break, War Emblem made a clear early lead.
"He broke sharp, and going up into the first turn, he was just about to relax when a horse came up to him," Theriot said. "We were off to the races. He took the bridle and he never did relax. He started to labor on me, and the last 50 yards or so, he was dead tired."
War Emblem finished fifth, but he was beaten only 2 1/4 lengths after contesting a fast pace at less than 100 percent fitness.
"I thought he ran a great race," Springer said.
Risen Star, 1 1/16 miles
Result: Sixth by 9 3/4 lengths
FAIR GROUNDS, Feb. 17 - Springer still believed. To get War Emblem to the next level, he thought, the colt needed a change in tactics. "We were going to take a shot at getting him off the pace," Theriot recalled.
In morning works, Springer had put War Emblem behind horses a number of times. "He was perfectly content to just sit in the morning," Springer said.
Theriot wasn't sure. "He'd relax okay, but not what I wanted him to," Theriot said. "The dirt would hit him and he'd take a jump out, a jump in."
War Emblem met better horses than he had ever faced in the Risen Star. He sprang from the gate ready to run, but Theriot took a hold. "I got him to come back to me," he said, "but he was kind of popping his head. On the turn, he was trying to get out. He ran a half-mile and he gave it up. He let the bit go and he ran like a dead horse.
"The first thing Frank told me was, 'We can't do that with him again,' " Theriot said.
War Emblem finished sixth in the race, beaten almost 10 lengths. "I thought he would run a little better," Springer said.
A funny thing happened after War Emblem's disappointing loss. He started coming around.
"He was back to his old self after the Risen Star," said Theriot, who continued breezing War Emblem at Fair Grounds. "When he was getting ready to leave, he was starting to get better and better. I could do almost everything with him myself. I could go out without a pony and almost get him back to the barn without one. You could do what you wanted with him now."
Result: Won by 10 3/4 lengths
SPORTSMAN'S PARK, March 17 - War Emblem returned to Chicago and bedded down on the Hawthorne backstretch. Surrounded by empty shipping containers, with a waste management company just out his back door, War Emblem started peaking.
Springer worked him only once at Hawthorne - never at Sportsman's - but could see in day-to-day training that he had something now. He put Juarez back on the colt and banished any thought of trying to rate him.
"He just needed to break and run his own race," Springer said.
There was not much to this allowance field, the local prep for the Illinois Derby. War Emblem was a 4-5 favorite. Before the race, Juarez said that he saw that this was a far different horse than the green colt who had dumped him six months earlier. "In the paddock he was calm," Juarez said. "He was on the muscle, but he was focused on what he was doing.
"He was on the bridle the whole way around. At the eighth pole he looked around a little, so I hit him once or twice, and he took off. I had a little trouble pulling him up."
It was no contest. War Emblem had won by almost 11 lengths, and on a track that played slowly, he had run fast.
Illinois Derby, 1 1/8 miles
Result: Won by 6 1/4 lengths
SPORTSMAN'S PARK, April 6 - The first time jockey Larry Sterling sat astride War Emblem, he was on his way out of the indoor paddock at Sportsman's and headed to the post for the Illinois Derby.
Juarez's agent had chosen a California shipper, Fonz's, in the race, leaving Springer scrambling for a new jockey. Sterling was running away with the Sportsman's riding title and was riding the track masterfully. It was an obvious choice.
"I just asked [Springer] what would happen if you took a little less hold on him," Sterling said. "He said, 'Shoot, he'd love that."
Springer had War Emblem tuned to a high pitch.
"I think I've got him as good as I can have him," Springer said days before the race.
The Illinois Derby was supposed to showcase Repent, one of the winter Kentucky Derby favorites. He never had a chance. War Emblem left the gate running and opened a clear lead before the first turn. "He relaxed in the first 100 yards," Sterling said. "You could tell being on him he was doing it so easily, that he was well within himself."
The racing surface was slow again, and on that track War Emblem's pace, just more than 1:13 for three-quarters of a mile, was demanding. Repent started running three furlongs from the finish, but War Emblem still held a clear lead turning for home. Said Sterling: "I waited as long as I could. I didn't do much until inside the quarter pole. At the sixteenth pole, I let the clutch out. Whoosh. It was like hitting the gas on a Corvette."
War Emblem won the Illinois Derby by 6 1/2 lengths for a smashing Beyer Speed Figure of 112.
In the winner's circle, Springer said he was tempted to pass the Kentucky Derby and shoot for the Preakness. Days later, he was no longer the colt's trainer. The impressive Illinois Derby, where War Emblem had finally put everything together, attracted the attention of Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp. War Emblem moved into Bob Baffert's celebrity shed row to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. (Baffert was willing to take a chance with the bone chips.) War Emblem was big-time now.
What War Emblem's new jockey, Victor Espinoza, felt as he flew down the stretch to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Juarez, Theriot, and Sterling all had felt before.
"When you'd ask this horse down the lane," Theriot remembered, "sometimes he'd just give you this big push. It'd give you goose bumps."
It could give everyone goose bumps Saturday.