"I was thinking about everything I'd gone through in my life to get to that moment. I started out a little track -- we all start out at little tracks. You're thinking, 'Wow, I used to watch this on TV as a little kid and I had no idea I'd be in this situation.' You don't dream that stuff. I've never had a dream about winning a horse race. I've had a lot of dreams about losing horse races."
Baffert picked Espinoza, in part, because he's strong and can slow a horse down. But he also did it because War Emblem is a horse who likes to run by himself, and if he'd selected a bigger-name jockey, the horse would've gotten more respect, would have been chased hard coming out of the gate. So they won the Derby, and the Preakness, too, but, by the time the Belmont rolled around, Baffert knew the horse was in trouble. He was getting thin and losing his oomph, and they weren't surprising anyone anymore.
Before the race, Baffert said to Espinoza what he says to all of his jockeys who have made it to the third Saturday of the Triple Crown: Win, lose or draw, he told him, they did something special.
War Emblem stumbled out of the gate, and lost to Sarava, a 70-1 long shot. Espinoza's moment was over.
"Once you got beat at Belmont," Baffert says, "it's almost like you lost your whole feeling of the first two wins.
"Afterwards, I always thought, 'You know, what I'd like is to win the Derby and just go home and enjoy that.' You lose the super high that you have."
Shortly before last month's Kentucky Derby, Baffert found Espinoza in the paddock and wished him luck. Baffert's horse, Hoppertunity, had been scratched a few days earlier, so he had time to watch his old friend ride.
He noticed a sense of peace in Espinoza now, the confidence that he had the best horse, and maybe, an appreciation of the moment he had unexpectedly found himself in once again. "I know you can do it," Baffert told Espinoza in the paddock. "You did it once. I know you can do it again."
A horse knows his rider just by the way he holds the reins, Baffert says. And there is nothing tight about Espinoza this time around. He is riding Chrome with so much finesse. It isn't like '02, when he barely knew War Emblem.
This time, they seem connected.
* * *
A haze has lifted over the San Gabriel Mountains, and the Santa Anita Park is lively on a Thursday morning. The song "California Dreaming" is playing as the track regulars ponder breakfast near the grandstand at Clockers' Corner, a trackside cafe.
Most mornings, Espinoza sits with a table full of older men at breakfast. Some of them are trainers; others are owners; and one guy is just a fan who stops by after he takes his wife to work.
They talk about everything from current events to stock tips, which Espinoza generally ignores. When he was a young man, in his 20s, he was into material things. He wanted to have everything. One day, Espinoza was gassing up his Lamborghini when a stranger stopped him and asked how he liked driving his boss' car, unaware that it was his. Espinoza smiled and didn't correct the guy, nor did he tell him that he had another Lamborghini at home. If it bothered him, he didn't show it.