Espinoza thought he was piloting not only the most likely Derby winner but a potential Triple Crown champion last year with high-powered American Pharoah. His dreams came true.
Fans might think such success — Espinoza is one of six jockeys to win consecutive Derbies — would lead to another powerhouse mount this year. The game is never that simple.
In a surprising twist, assorted circumstances left Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent, to scramble for an assignment. The result is Whitmore, a Pleasantly Perfect colt that has not won above the allowance level in six career starts. Whitmore will draw more attention for his rider than his resume.
“It’s going to be hard,” Espinoza said during a recent phone interview, “but you never know.”
He was quick to add, “As long as I have a horse in the race, I always think I can win the Kentucky Derby.”
Espinoza will be gunning for his fourth Derby victory, having started his run with War Emblem in 2002. Bill Hartack and Eddie Arcaro share the all-time lead with five Derby triumphs.
Trainer Ron Moquett understands the skepticism surrounding Whitmore. But he noted that his horse often encountered big fields that led to trying trips, such as when he finished third in a 12-horse field for the Arkansas Derby after runner-up efforts in 14-horse fields for the Rebel and Southwest Stakes. All three preps were at Oaklawn Park. Whitmore opened his 3-year-old campaign with an allowance win at Oaklawn.
“We definitely believe we have a good chance if we get a good trip with our proven ability and the heart of our horse,” Moquett said.
Although Irad Ortiz Jr. guided Whitmore in his last two starts, Moquett found himself in need of a rider when Ortiz cited his year-long involvement with prominent trainer Chad Brown and elected to ride My Man Sam for Brown in the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
Moquett said of Espinoza’s availability, “It’s like playing pickup basketball and getting Stephen Curry.”
Espinoza joined elite company in earning consecutive Derby triumphs. Isaac Murphy (1890-91), Jimmy Winkfield (1901-02), Ron Turcotte (1972-73), Eddie Delahoussaye (1982-83) and recently retired Calvin Borel (2009-10) were the others to go back-to-back.
Beach noted that Espinoza’s victories in five of the last six Triple Crown races made him a far easier sell to trainers and owners.
“I think the overriding sentiment toward Victor is the stage is not too big for him, the situation is not too big for him,” Beach said. “He proved he’s cool under fire.”
The latest reminder of Espinoza’s unflappable nature occurred when his saddle slipped not long ago in the Dubai World Cup. He nonetheless guided California Chrome to a commanding victory.
“His maintaining his balance and composure is a good illustration of how he is in those situations,” Beach said.
If Whitmore can follow in the footsteps of his sire, the Derby’s 1 ¼-mile distance will not be an issue. Pleasantly Perfect won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2003 before prevailing in the Dubai World Cup early in 2004. Other positives: Whitmore’s first career victory occurred in his Churchill Downs debut and he is based there.
Espinoza, 43, has been studying video of Whitmore’s recent races. He is scheduled to meet next Tuesday morning with Moquett, who heads an ownership group that also includes Bob LaPenta and Henry Rosenblum. He also looks forward to meeting Whitmore.
“Maybe a little more distance will help. Maybe I can do something different for him,” said Espinoza, recognizing that his challenge is far greater than it has been.