Victor Espinoza's masterful rides have contributed to California Chrome's success (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
Ground loss matters … sometimes. One of the keys to interpreting the data collected by Trakus at racecourses around the world lies in the recognition that while every race has data, that data isn’t compelling simply by nature of its existence. Some data is more meaningful than other; combining selective data analysis with traditional “handicapping” (be it a review of past performances, speed figures, or race replay analysis), can yield added insight and either strengthen a positive or a negative opinion on the chances of a particular horse.
Does it matter all that much when California Chrome covers extra ground in his races? Not really.
California Chrome has done a bit of everything … he’s done all the work up front, he’s covered extra ground, he’s settled just behind the speed. His last defeat came in the Golden State Juvenile at Santa Anita on Breeders’ Cup weekend when he finished sixth, beaten by three lengths. The track was considered quite speed favoring … and despite an inside draw and covering one of the shortest trips, he was not placed in a forward position on that occasion.
California Chrome is the deserving choice and has managed to run in the clear and avoid trouble in almost every one of his races. It’s almost impossible through any scenario seeing him get the lead early, especially with speed to his inside and two confirmed front-runners needing to cross from gates mid-pack. Expect him to sit in the second flight with Samraat in close attendance … [He] just seems to have an ability that could be beyond his peers.
California Chrome’s covering extra ground has been a good thing, nearly a necessary element of his current streak. Added ground coverage typically means staying out of trouble. For the average horse, those types of trips require a horse to run faster to maintain position, draining energy needed for late in the race. But California Chrome is clearly not your average horse, and frankly, Victor Espinoza is far from your average jockey.
While much of the focus is on the horse, Victor Espinoza has been nothing short of perfect with his in-race decision-making aboard the son of Lucky Pulpit. Espinoza has been aggressive in the early stages of both the Derby and Preakness, securing positions enabling a clear path, mitigating late-race traffic issues, and basically just putting California Chrome in the best possible position to have a chance to win.
One more such ride yields history – wouldn’t that be fun!
Let’s go back to the Derby.
THE 2014 KENTUCKY DERBY
California Chrome breaks well and goes with Uncle Sigh right from the start, while Chitu begins to run for the lead from the outside. Espinoza looks over his right shoulder inside the eighth-pole passing the stands the first time and sees Chitu coming. His front-running desire is well-known, and Espinoza tapped the equine brakes on California Chrome, allowing Martin Garcia to clear in front of him. Samraat, however, is a menace on his outside, and with Chitu now cleared in front of him approaching the first turn, Espinoza appears slightly concerned for a moment that Irad Ortiz Jr. will angle down and take a three-wide position while trapping California Chrome just behind. He niggles at California Chrome to maintain his position, efforting the slightest bit of extra speed as the field begins to corner, securing a spot outside Chitu, and forcing Samraat wider.
From this point of the race, California Chrome is completely in the clear. No horse runs directly in front of him, and that’s seemingly Espinoza’s goal.
The Preakness saw an even more brazen display of crack riding from Espinoza. Seven strides out of the gate, Espinoza guides California Chrome wider, drawn low in gate three and with plenty of speed to his outside. Pablo Del Monte, from a high draw, comes running for the lead while Espinoza straightens the Derby winner, waits for Pablo Del Monte to clear, then moves his mount out a bit more, brushing with Social Inclusion, and clearly staking his claim for some open space.
When Calvin Borel surprisingly moves Ria Antonia to join Pablo Del Monte, Espinoza is forced to make another move to ensure he is not trapped behind them. As the first turn begins, Espinoza makes room to his outside, again brushing Social Inclusion, knocking him off stride slightly, but certifying California Chrome’s clear path. From this point forward, no horse will be directly in front of the eventual Preakness winner.
As the far turn approached, Social Inclusion was inching closer from California Chrome’s outside, forcing Espinoza to get just a bit more from his mount and hold that clear position. Espinoza’s goal is simple – don’t let anyone cross in front of his mount at a key point in the race which could jeopardize an open run. If it means covering extra ground, so be it.
Espinoza identified the challenges of the Preakness at the post race press conference. “This race, it was more tiring mentally than physical because all of the things going on early in the race, wow, I didn't expect that.”
CALIFORNIA CHROME'S WIN IN THE 2014 PREAKNESS STAKES
So what should we all expect in the Belmont? California Chrome needs to be out in the clear. The more inside the post position, the less advantageous it would be to his chances, if only for the reason that it reduces the likelihood of California Chrome getting in an open space.
Victor Espinoza has been in this situation before, a story that seems to be less-publicized than it should be considering the unique nature of the task ahead. In 2002, aboard need-the-lead Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, hopes were dashed right at the start when he suffered a costly stumble, eliminating most any chance at American racing immortality.
A similar stumble by California Chrome could be a deal-breaker in a tactical race like the Belmont. But it would not be completely unexpected if California Chrome stumbled – while he’s had some picture-perfect starts recently, his Santa Anita Derby break was less than ideal. A slight bobble at the break could have cost him, but Espinoza gathered his mount, took advantage of the fact that longshot Dublin Up cleared from the outside to the rail, and assumed a stalking, in-the-clear position.
What about everyone else in the Belmont? The long-sweeping turns are gentler on horses, but yield more opportunity for losing ground. Could that matter for one horse over another? Perhaps not, especially as this Belmont field shouldn’t be too bulky.
Wicked Strong, who broke from the widest gate in the Derby, covered the seventh-widest trip there. Medal Count was just slightly wider than Wicked Strong, and was stopped severely in the stretch by an erratic Danza, surely hurting his chances of landing a place in the money. Derby second Commanding Curve ran the final sixteenth of the race about 0.4 seconds faster than an eased California Chrome, and now comes back for more over a longer trip. Ride On Curlin, who was one of the biggest ground-savers and fastest closers when seventh in the Derby, had a much wider trip at Pimlico when unable to get to the winner. Peter Pan winner Tonalist deserves plenty of attention, and we gave him some in this blog from February before running in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
With all the hype surrounding this attempt for the Triple Crown, it’s easy to think that Victor Espinoza’s job will be to determine what every other jockey is going to do on their respective mounts. One man riding every horse in the race, so to speak. But that is doubtful.
Espinoza has one job – get California Chrome in the clear, whether it be on the lead or near it. What other horses race around him and how they treat him after that seems almost unimportant. Espinoza, in reality, and in his mind, is only riding one horse. You can guarantee that every other rider in the race will have their mind on at least their own mount, and the very popular favorite.