Call to the Hall of Fame: Victor Espinoza

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Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Friday. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Not many riders, not even the top ones, get a shot at the Triple Crown. That Victor Espinoza has had three shots at racing's brass ring is remarkable in itself, and his sweep of the series aboard American Pharoah in 2015 puts him in unique company.

Espinoza's Triple Crown score came just 12 months after he tried to win it with California Chrome. The rider's first attempt came back in 2002 aboard War Emblem, but any chance of winning on that front-running colt was quickly snuffed out when the horse nearly stumbled to his nose coming out of the Belmont Stakes starting gate.

Espinoza's entry into the Hall of Fame comes without a national earnings title or an Eclipse Award, but racking up classic wins is a surefire ticket. He's one of only 10 riders to have won the Derby more than twice, and one of six to win the run for the roses in consecutive years.

With such a high profile in front of the national television audiences brought in by the Triple Crown races, it was fitting Espinoza was able to step outside of racing and compete on the national television show "Dancing With the Stars." In one of his rare missteps, Espinoza was unable to hit the board while teamed with professional dancer Karina Smirnoff.

Espinoza wins the Belmont Stakes aboard American Pharoah. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Espinoza was born May 23, 1972, a year before Secretariat became the ninth winner of the Triple Crown. Espinoza grew up on a dairy farm outside Hidalgo, Mexico, and rode horses on the farm, along with his brother and fellow jockey Jose Espinoza. As the legend goes, he drove a bus in Mexico City as a teen to pay for jockey school.

Espinoza couldn't speak much English when he arrived in the U.S. in 1990 and wound up in Northern California in 1992. Two years later he was the leading apprentice rider at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.

"We've been watching Victor ride for years since he came from Mexico because he was at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows," said Alan Sherman, son and assistant of trainer Art Sherman. "I remember when he got here, he was very aggressive. He used to get (suspensions) all the time. He might have beaten Russell Baze for leading rider if he didn't get all of those (suspensions)."

In 1995 Espinoza moved to the Southern California circuit and caught his first big break when he guided the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Spain to victory in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs.

He would return to the twin spires the following year aboard the Bob Baffert-trained Congaree and finish third in the Kentucky Derby. His patience—at Baffert's insistence—got him to the Derby winner's circle for the first time the following year aboard War Emblem.

"He was my main rider at the time and he was the 'King of California,'" Baffert said. "I think there is the language barrier, so that's why he doesn't say much, but he's a very smart guy."

The rider had not even seen War Emblem until the morning of the Derby in 2002, and he had a 15-minute huddle with Baffert to go over what strategy he needed to follow aboard the front-running colt.

"Just get out of the gate cleanly," Espinoza recalled Baffert telling him. "I don't know how many times he told me to 'wait.' He told me plenty of times to wait (on the lead before asking War Emblem)."

"After that race there was nothing wrong with putting Victor Espinoza on a horse," Baffert said.

Espinoza and California Chrome after their Pacific Classic win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

However, Espinoza would have to wait 11 years before he'd get aboard another classic-winning horse. Art Sherman gave Espinoza a leg up on California Chrome in December of 2013 at Hollywood Park for the King Glorious Stakes for California-breds. The rider did not lose on the son of Lucky Pulpit, taking the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, until a fourth-place finish in the Belmont.

"He did a good job keeping him out of trouble. He fit him really well," Art Sherman said.

At 5 California Chrome won seven stakes, including the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline but fell a half-length shy of the Baffert-trained Arrogate in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The jockey hit his peak aboard American Pharoah in 2015, when he became the first to sweep the Triple Crown since the 18-year-old Steve Cauthen won it in 1978 on Affirmed. Age 43 at the time, Espinoza is the oldest rider to win the Triple Crown.

"I needed a rider who was really strong and Victor has really strong hands," Baffert said of picking Espinoza for American Pharoah. "He can wrestle a horse without taking the fight out of them. You're going to have bad luck along the way, but the good ones keep a great horse from getting beat."

With Espinoza's entry, jockey agent Brian Beach—his representative since January of 2013—has at some point handled the books of six Hall of Fame riders: Julie Krone, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, and Alex Solis.

"Back-to-back wins in the Derby, back-to-back wins in the Preakness, a chance for the Triple Crown a second time (in consecutive years)—that kind of stuff, you can never draw up," Beach said.  

Espinoza's daily business has produced more than 3,300 wins and he ranks 17th on the all-time North American earnings list, with more than $194 million in purses won. He's won 11 meet titles on the Southern California circuit while competing against a tough jockey colony that included fellow 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Garrett Gomez.

Espinoza was honored by his peers with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2016. He donates a percentage of his winnings to support pediatric cancer research at City of Hope, in Duarte, Calif.

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