Victor Espinoza's second chance

California Chrome

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Victor Espinoza holds a suit jacket up to two hangers full of ties. He is standing in a walk-in closet at his bachelor-cluttered condo near Santa Anita Park, packing for the Belmont Stakes, and he has to get this right because it's not as if a 5-foot-2 man can walk into a mall and buy a suit off a rack. He pulls a gray jacket out of the closet, his best jacket. "You think it looks good?" Espinoza asks. This one, he says, he'll wear on Saturday. Race day.

His first bag is halfway packed, with gym shorts, underwear, an old plane ticket from the Preakness a couple of weeks ago and a watch that he won at the Kentucky Derby that he plans to give to his brother. His silks are draped over a loveseat. His whip is on a FedEx flight headed for New York.

Espinoza never dreamed he'd be back in this spot, with a second chance to win a Triple Crown. He's 42 years old, more than a decade removed from a failed run with War Emblem in 2002, and, up until a month or two ago, was considered to be on the backside of his career. He had stopped thinking about Triple Crowns -- or even the Kentucky Derby -- because every time he pushed too hard, it never seemed to happen. A year or two after War Emblem, Espinoza rode four very good horses who could have been The One. None of them even made it to the Kentucky Derby. And then along comes this horse, California Chrome, at the most unexpected time, and with what in the beginning were terrible odds.

He ducks back into the closet and pulls out a pair of leather Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. All of his suits from 2002 are gone, given to charity, he thinks, forgotten.

It's Wednesday, 10 days before the biggest race of his life, and every time he tries to get something accomplished, the phone buzzes. He put it on vibrate a few weeks ago after California Chrome's win in the Preakness Stakes, but even the more passive tone gets to him and he just has to answer it. Letterman's people called recently, and now a PR guy is inviting him to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. Espinoza is polite and funny -- even to the people who call him at 6 a.m., forgetting that he lives on the West Coast -- because he realizes the magnitude of the moment, and he knows it won't last.

Three hundred sixty-two days of the year, Espinoza's work is shown on tiny televisions in off-track betting sites. Now he's one win away from something that hasn't been done since 1978, something that would breathe a gale force of life into horse racing.

Twelve horses have stood here since '78, on the cusp of history, only to fail because of all of the uncontrollable variables, the luck, the damned luck, and the pressure of what's at stake in the effort. Hall of Fame owner and trainer Bob Baffert, who has lost three Triple Crowns, says every jockey wears the burden of that pressure on his face in the days before Belmont.

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