Victor Espinoza talks to the press at Belmont Park ahead of the Belmont Stakes. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
Jockey Victor Espinoza, a former bus driver in his native Mexico City, is living the American dream as the winner of more than 3,000 races and more than $169 million in purse money. Above all, he made the difference for Triple Crown threat California Chrome. They are undefeated through six consecutive stakes races together, prevailing by a combined margin of 27 ½ lengths.
Here is his diary leading up to the 146th Belmont Stakes, written by Tom Pedulla of America’s Best Racing:
ELMONT, N.Y. – I have been in New York all week and it has been a fun time. I threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium Monday night and really enjoyed my visit to the most famous stadium in the world. The fans treated me well. I threw from the pitching rubber instead of the front of the mound and nearly fired a strike. If I ever get the chance to do that again, I will take a warm-up throw.
I was part of the group that rang the opening bell at The New York Stock Exchange and I have handled a bunch of media appearances. I understand this is a time to promote our great sport, and I am only too happy to give something back to a game that has been so good to me. To those who have never been to a racetrack, I really urge you to come out. With its highs and lows, with the horses and their riders working as a team, there really is nothing like it.
I consider myself to be very fortunate to be in this position a second time. I think of all the jockeys who never won a Triple Crown race or never even have the opportunity to compete in one. I will say I worked hard to get to this point, just as I did when War Emblem swept the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2002.
I admit now that I never liked my chances that much with War Emblem. He knew no other way than to go to the front. He hated to be behind horses. He didn’t like dirt getting kicked in his face and would back off in that situation rather than fight through it. I knew my only shot was to have War Emblem break sharply and go to the lead. To think he would stay in the lead for a mile and a half, I knew that was asking a lot and probably too much.
As it turned out, that race was over at the start. When he stumbled leaving the gate, I knew my chance was gone. There was no way we could make an easy lead after that and, in these Triple Crown races, there really is no margin for error.
There is no comparing War Emblem to California Chrome. I knew Chrome had a chance to be special the first time I rode him. He is an incredibly responsive horse, willing to do whatever I ask whenever I ask it.
CALIFORNIA CHROME WORKS UNDER ESPINOZA ON MAY 31
Photo by NYRA/Susie Raisher
When I called on him in the Kentucky Derby, he opened up on the rest of the field at the top of the stretch and I was able to ease him under the wire, comfortably ahead of Commanding Curve by 1 ¾ lengths. Due to heavy early pressure, I was forced to call on him earlier in the Preakness than I wanted to. But he took hold of the bit and gave me everything I needed.
Of the 10 horses we will face, the fresh horses such as Commanding Curve, who skipped the Preakness, worry me the most. I would say they are the most dangerous. We got a good post when we drew number two, but the post is not much of a factor going a mile and a half.
I will do everything I can to save ground and to allow Chrome to settle into a relaxed, efficient stride that will put him in position to win. My biggest hope is that he gets to run his race – and that it will be good enough.
TRIPLE CHROME BOUND