Victor Espinoza's second chance

But not Espinoza, at least not yet. On this sunny day in California, he has just two fears: Not finding at least five matching suit combinations for all of his New York functions and media obligations, and flying. He has booked the redeye to New York so he can sleep through much of it. It might sound weird, that a 112-pound man is fearless when he climbs aboard a 1,000-pound thoroughbred and is afraid to buckle into a first-class seat on a commercial jet, but jockeys are rare characters. And it's no weirder than the mechanical horse near his bed that Espinoza rides for practice.

On a plane, he says, he's not in control. But here's the thing: When he's honest about it, Espinoza knows too well that when he and a horse reach the starting gate at a race like the Belmont, so much is out of his control. Including the day after.

"We have ups and downs that really make you think a lot," Espinoza says. "In 2002, I have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, and the next thing you know, I win. Big celebrity. Top of the world. At Belmont, when you don't win, nobody knows you the next day. They'll forget about it."

* * *

California Chrome's mother cost $8,000 and his unheralded owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, were mocked for buying the mare and pinning their hopes on its colt with a jangled pedigree.

Horses don't wear nametags, but even before his win in the Derby, Chrome was known around Southern California racetracks because of his markings. In the morning, when the sun glistens off his chestnut coat, white feet and blaze (the white is known in horse-industry lingo as chrome), the thoroughbred is striking.

But Espinoza was drawn to something else.

"It's kind of hard to explain," Espinoza says. "I just saw him and I think I can improve him."

Chrome struggled as a 2-year-old, losing two of his first three starts, but Espinoza kept an eye on the horse's progress. He told his agent, Brian Beach, that he'd like to ride the horse if it ever worked out.

Albert Delgado was riding him at the time, and Coburn and Martin, figuring the horse was young and just trying to find his way, were in no hurry to make a change.

Beach called the horse's trainers, father-and-son team Art and Alan Sherman, to tell them Espinoza was interested, just the same. Months passed, the horse continued to both exhilarate and disappoint, and Espinoza continued his routine riding on a few hundred anonymous mounts. Horse racing is all about timing, fate and relationships -- Espinoza had worked with the Shermans before, and Beach had shared a few conversations over steaks and wine with them -- and, in December, the trainers finally decided to make a change and called on ... Mike Smith.

Smith was a veteran jockey who had just won the 2013 Belmont Stakes that past summer. He worked California Chrome, but wound up unavailable to ride him in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 22 because Smith was being inducted into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame.

So Alan Sherman called Espinoza's agent. "Remember that horse you've been asking me about?" Sherman said. "Do you still want to ride him?"

Espinoza was stoked. He rode California Chrome to victory in the King Glorious Stakes. Won by 6¼ lengths. The horse hasn't lost since.

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