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.

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.

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."

"They didn't think about the future," he says. "I [grew] up thinking about my future. I wanted to know what can I do with my life, and they only worried about playing and watching a movie.

"I was really curious to see what life's [about]. And older guys who live longer than me, I want to know what they do in life, what I can learn."

An older man once asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Espinoza was 8, maybe 10, at the time. He said he didn't know, but whatever he did, he wanted to be the best. And ever since he was a kid, he's wanted to be healthy.

He was afraid to even get near horses as a child. He respected their size and power, and how far a little boy could fall. But the more he was around horses, the more it became automatic. His older brother Jose left home as a teenager, and a few years later, he asked for Victor's help when he got a job as a trainer. Victor, 15 at the time, joined him and learned about a horse's body and mind. The brothers eventually became jockeys. Last summer, Jose fell off a horse and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He most likely will never ride again.

Before or after each race, Victor prays that he and all of the other jockeys will be safe. He did this the day of Jose's accident. He'll no doubt do it again Saturday.

* * *

The faces in horse racing don't change much; they just get older. It can be a cutthroat business, especially in Southern California, where the jockeys can't hop from track to track, like on the East Coast, so they run into mostly the same people, people they're competing against multiple times a day.

"We're kind of like high-paid circus people," says longtime Southern California trainer Gary Stute, a friend of Espinoza's. "You work seven days a week, and, like carny people, this is our whole life."

But not all days are the same. Not all races blur into one another.

In the spring of 2002, Espinoza's life was on the verge of change. Three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Prince Ahmed bin Salman bought 90 percent interest in War Emblem, a talented and temperamental horse who had just won the Illinois Derby.

Espinoza, a lifer and a relative unknown on the big stage, was about to have the wildest ride of his career.

* * *

He didn't even see War Emblem until the morning of the Kentucky Derby.

Baffert, War Emblem's trainer, showed Espinoza video of the horse winning a race in Illinois, then gave the jockey instructions on how he thought the Derby should unfold. He told him that he was riding a really good horse, and joked that Espinoza shouldn't jump up and down if he's heading for home with a big lead.

War Emblem led for much of the race, found another gear down the stretch and blew past the competition.

"I had seven seconds of knowing I was going to win the Kentucky Derby," Baffert says. "It's a different kind of feeling. It's like if somebody played the lottery and hit it for millions, and the first time you read the numbers and you actually thought, 'Geez, those are the numbers?' It's just like that. You don't know what it's going to feel like until it happens.

"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.

"I never see him in a bad mood, and I see him every day," Gary Stute says. "It's hard to be nice every day in this game. It's a really up-and-down profession. If you're winning, you're making money, and if you're not winning, you're not making money. Some days you're not doing as well as you thought you would."

For the past couple of weeks, the guys in the grandstand have been teasing Espinoza about his newfound fame. They ask if he's going to Disney World if he wins. He laughs them off. Chances are, no matter what happens, he'll find his seat back at the table for breakfast with the old guys at Clockers' Corner.

He knows that, this time around, it's a bigger deal than in '02. Espinoza assumes it's because of the horse, his beauty and his underdog story. He also credits technology for all the buzz, and Twitter.

On Tuesday afternoon, Espinoza posted pictures of himself with Yankees manager Joe Girardi, along with a selfie in a New York Rangers uniform. Just like his horse, Espinoza seems to love the attention. But by the weekend, the guest appearances will end, and he'll lock in with Chrome.

"He's having the time of his life again," Baffert says. "It's almost like a second chance in life."

On Saturday, Espinoza will take a nap in the jockeys' quarters, stretch and give the horse a neck rub.

In the starting gate, he'll grab the reins. He'll sit ready with Chrome.

He'll know how to lead.

His gut, his past and his horse will tell him.

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 24029501.
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...