Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
The series concludes this week with Victor Espinoza. He obtained the mount on well-regarded Bolt d’Oro after Javier Castellano, who has enjoyed a long association with Todd Pletcher, opted for Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Audible. Castellano had ridden Bolt d’Oro to victory in the San Felipe Stakes (via disqualification) in a hard-fought duel with McKinzie and then placed second, three lengths behind Justify, in the Santa Anita Derby.
Espinoza, 45, born on a dairy farm in Hidalgo, Mexico, is bidding for his fourth Derby triumph following victories aboard War Emblem (2002), California Chrome (2014) and American Pharoah (2015). After being denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes with War Emblem and California Chrome, he accomplished the historic sweep when American Pharoah emerged as the first to take the Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.
PEDULLA: There was a time when you were willing to work Bolt d’Oro without riding him in races. Why were you willing to do that?
ESPINOZA: I’m a business guy. I look for the future. I’m not looking for one race or two. I’m looking for the future, and the future is the Kentucky Derby. That’s the way I looked at it. I might not ride him in the prep race, but I might have a shot to ride him in the most important race of the year.
PEDULLA: Does it look to you that there is a lot of speed in this Derby? If there is, can your horse sit off it?
ESPINOZA: Honestly, I don’t even worry about it, how much speed or who is going to go where. When the gate opens, everything changes.
PEDULLA: What can you tell us about Bolt d’Oro?
ESPINOZA: He has the experience, he has the body, he has the power, he has the talent to be able to handle it. What I like about him, too, is he will take the noise very well. When they walk from the barn to the paddock, it’s wild. And a lot of horses can’t take that. I think Bolt d’Oro is the right horse because he’s so calm. Nothing bothers him.
PEDULLA: How will he handle the mile-and-a-quarter distance?
ESPINOZA: It will not be a problem for him. I don’t doubt that he will make the mile and a quarter.
ESPINOZA: The way he’s built, the endurance he has, and he’s bred to go long. He’s the type of horse that he doesn’t use his energy early. He does what he has to do. Whenever I ride him in the morning, he just waits for my command. And that’s the type of horse I like to ride.
PEDULLA: What kind of training job has Mick Ruis done with this horse?
ESPINOZA: So far, so good. He owns the horses and he trains them. He’s done an incredible job.
PEDULLA: Based on the Santa Anita Derby, you have three lengths to make up on Justify? Can you make up that kind of ground on him?
ESPINOZA: I’m ready for it. I’m definitely ready to make a difference. I don’t think it will be that difficult to make up three lengths in the Derby.
ESPINOZA: Because of the big field and the noise. A lot of horses don’t take the noise that well. They use a lot of energy. Bolt d’Oro, he saves it for the race. I respect all the jockeys, but I think I can improve him a little bit. At least I have that in my mind. You have to be positive.
PEDULLA: Although you have three Derby wins, will you be nervous before the race?
ESPINOZA: A little bit. It’s normal. Any human being has to be a little nervous. But also I’m excited, knowing I’m back again with a great chance to win.
PEDULLA: Does your success in the Derby give you confidence?
ESPINOZA: Absolutely. All the success I have at Churchill Downs, every time I go I’m positive. I don’t have a doubt in my mind. Hey, I’m here and I’m here to win.
PEDULLA: What did your success with American Pharoah mean to you? Do you still think about it?
ESPINOZA: I do. There are times I think about it and I think I rode him the best in the Kentucky Derby. Believe me, if I did not ride him the way I rode him, there would be no Triple Crown winner.
PEDULLA: Do you continue to donate a percentage of your earnings to City of Hope (for research and treatment of pediatric cancer)?
ESPINOZA: Yes, and I will continue until I stop riding. I donate 10 percent of my earnings. Those kids, they don’t know how long they have to live. They might have one year, two months, one week. Who knows? That is why I appreciate life more than anybody on this earth because I see those kids and I learn so much about life. Life is not about how much you win, how much you have. Material things go away. To me, it’s more about creating memories that never go away.