Victor Espinoza's second chance

Espinoza, who in an average year rides upward of 800 mounts, scoffs at the notion of chemistry between a horse and jockey. This is all business, he says. He loves horses but insists his interest in them lies squarely in what they can do.

But don't believe that. Alan Sherman has seen it. Victor and Chrome complement each other, he says. Neither Espinoza nor the horse panics or gets too amped up in difficult situations. They seem to listen to each other on the track, and there's an easy rhythm between them. Espinoza drops the reins when he gets on Chrome, touches him on the shoulder, and tells him it's time to perform.

Both jockey and horse are even-tempered and strong -- Espinoza runs mountain trails for conditioning -- and thrive on competing. On the track, Espinoza is a hard-core alpha male. And so is the horse.

Just before the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome was strutting around in the paddock when Espinoza looked down and realized that the horse had an erection. Now in most instances, a bettor would get very nervous about such a thing, change his pick and assume the horse was too distracted to run at his best. But Espinoza read it as a good sign. It was as if the horse sensed it was a big race -- he had never done it before this -- and wanted to show the other horses in the paddock who was boss.

The horse seems to love attention. When Chrome was getting a bath one day at Churchill Downs, dozens of photographers were taking pictures of him at close range. He didn't flinch. He sized up the crowd, and almost seemed to enjoy the flashing lights.

Two weeks later, they were at the Preakness when Chrome got -- ahem -- excited in the paddock again.

"Art," Espinoza told the elder Sherman, "I think we're ready."

If the Derby was a piece of cake, the Preakness was a giant glass full of antacids. Everybody was aiming for them. Two horses jumped out in front of Chrome and he wanted to go, to blast past them, but it was too early, and Espinoza slowed him down a bit and tucked him into third. He can't explain it, how he never comes in with a plan with this horse, how he bases all of his decisions on instinct. It was a gut move, and the horse agreed, settling in. As they approached the final turn, they made their move, catching Pablo Del Monte, bolting away from Social Inclusion, holding off a late charge from Ride On Curlin.

Afterward, Espinoza's brain was fried. To make the right moves had meant trying to think along with the horse. It was an act of trust on both their parts. California Chrome has two personalities, Espinoza says. He likes to play and jump and be happy. But when the blinkers are on, the horse gets serious.

"Victor doesn't get in the horse's way," Alan Sherman says. "He doesn't try and make the horse do something he doesn't want to do."

* * *

The first time Espinoza tried to get into an animal's head, he wound up on the ground. He was 6, maybe 7 years old, and living on a farm with 11 siblings outside of Mexico City. The Espinozas raised horses, cows, chickens and goats on the farm, but the donkeys were what vexed Victor. One feisty donkey kept bucking the little boy off, and Espinoza would lie awake at night, wondering how he could stay on. He never figured it out. Some animals, Espinoza says, you never fully comprehend.

He didn't have many friends as a kid, and he says that was by choice. He grew impatient with the children his age because all they wanted to talk about were "nutty things."

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