Were it not for fast horses and calm nerves, Victor Espinoza could be stuck in traffic in Mexico City. He might still be driving a bus in his crowded hometown.
Instead, Espinoza barrels along at 35 mph aboard a much faster mode of transportation: Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome. And 20 years after emigrating from Mexico, the jockey finds himself at the top of his sport – again – with a chance to bring home the elusive Triple Crown.
“There’s too much pressure on me,” said Espinoza with a laugh, during a phone interview from his home in Sierra Madre. “I’m just trying to take this one step at a time.”
Saturday in Baltimore, Espinoza will attempt to guide California Chrome to victory in the Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown’s second jewel. Unlike the horse’s trainer and novice owners, the jockey has been here before.
Espinoza won the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard War Emblem, a front-running speedster owned by a Saudi Arabian prince. But in the cyclical nature of horse racing, the rider’s fortunes have been more down than up in the 12 years since. In an ultra-competitive game, Espinoza has had few chances to repeat.
“I’m really shocked,” Espinoza said of being in the midst of another pursuit of the crown. “But I’m having fun.”
Since Espinoza teamed with California Chrome in December, they are undefeated. They have won five consecutive stakes but need two more wins to earn the coveted Triple Crown. No horse has swept the series since 1978. Horse and rider are simpatico, he said, together as one in a zone.
“He likes me, the way I ride him,” Espinoza said. “We get along really well. There’s something more I see in him that gives me a little more confidence, too.”
That confidence has built along with California Chrome’s following. This spring, Espinoza rode the golden colt with the Cinderella back story to national prominence. The first California-bred horse to win the Derby in 52 years, California Chrome is owned by two sets of everyday working people: Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev. Unlikely players in the Sport of Kings, the couples won the Derby with their home-grown bargain, the first horse they ever bred. At 77, Art Sherman became the oldest trainer to win the Derby – with his first Derby starter.
All their fortunes ride with Espinoza, who turns 42 next week. Espinoza has known success: He has won more than 3,100 races. His horses have earned about $162 million, and the jockey’s share totals more than $16 million. But he, too, came from humble beginnings to reach the peak of racing.
“I think Victor Espinoza fits California Chrome well because both horse and man think for themselves,” Denise Martin said. “Each makes his own decisions, and at the same time each respects the other’s decision. Chrome trusts Victor, and Victor trusts Chrome. That level of confidence and respect is rare.”
‘Easier than driving’
Espinoza considers himself exceptionally lucky, especially when he reflects on where he’s been. No. 11 out of 12 children, he grew up on a Mexican dairy farm, milking cows.
“I didn’t like horses when I was a kid,” he said. “They scared me.”
But two older brothers found success at the racetrack. As jockeys, they traveled and earned good money. It was a lifestyle Victor yearned to enjoy, but he needed to learn to ride.
At 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, he fit the size requirements of a professional rider. He decided to go to jockey school, a yearlong certification program mandated for professional riders in Mexico; his brothers were both graduates. To earn tuition, he drove a metro bus in Mexico City, where his family still lives.
“It’s a lot easier riding horses than driving in that traffic,” he recalled in an earlier interview.
Once riding and winning at Mexican tracks, he decided to immigrate to the United States, where he was told jockeys could be millionaires. A friend suggested he try Golden Gate Fields “because everybody speaks Spanish” in California, he said.
That wasn’t the case, and Espinoza remembers hitting an awkward language barrier – but said it motivated him to win.
“Winning was easier than losing,” he said. “I couldn’t explain to the trainer or owner why the horse lost, but if I win, I don’t have to talk to nobody.”
In 1994, Espinoza earned honors as the leading apprentice jockey at both Golden Gate and the now-demolished Bay Meadows before moving south to Los Angeles and more lucrative opportunities. He quickly earned a reputation for riding long-shot horses to victory in big races. That included War Emblem, who won the 2002 Derby at 20-1.
Along the way, Espinoza developed a disciplined work ethic. In addition to racing and exercising horses, he spends two hours in the gym every day and jogs after the races.
“Life is so short,” said Espinoza, a bachelor. “After I passed 30 years old, I decided I should try to have as much fun as I can, to live life every day, to enjoy being healthy and in one piece.”
Despite his reputation, Espinoza’s career gradually ebbed after War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid. He had fewer opportunities to ride in big races. His best horses retired. Trainer Bobby Frankel, who used Espinoza extensively, died. Bob Baffert, War Emblem’s trainer, switched to jockeys who were winning more races. By 2012, Espinoza – perennially a Top 10 rider in national rankings – dropped to No. 49.
“That’s the way this game goes,” said Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent. “You’re only as good as the horses you’re riding. You look at the career of most jockeys; they have a three-year peak, then it’s downhill. That’s the nature of the game. Horses are always going away, and you have to find replacements.”
‘Not even as a dream’
Espinoza got the mount on California Chrome in part because he was available; no one else was offering him a Triple Crown prospect. But he knew he wanted to ride this colt the moment he saw him on video while studying a race last summer.
“I was actually watching a different horse that I was going to ride, but he caught my eye,” Espinoza said. “I didn’t even know his name. I started following him. Every time he ran, I watched him. That’s how this all started. Then, Brian called and said, ‘Do you want to ride your favorite horse?’ Did I think he would turn out to be a Derby winner? Never, ever; not even as a dream.”
Before Espinoza took over, California Chrome had finished sixth in two consecutive stakes. Sherman, who had known Espinoza for 20 years, hoped a rider change could help turn Chrome into a consistent winner. It worked. With Espinoza aboard, Chrome has never lost.
“They do have some sort of chemistry together,” Beach said. “Victor basically lets Chrome have fun. The most important thing with Chrome is get him out of the gate. But once he gets rolling, it’s like trying to stop a train running downhill.”
Espinoza knows this Triple Crown trail can turn sour at any time. War Emblem lost the 2002 Belmont when he stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth.
But California Chrome is different than front-running War Emblem; he’s a better horse, Espinoza said. “He’s a tremendous horse. He doesn’t have to be in front. He’s easy to ride, more manageable. I can be in front or behind, inside, outside, it doesn’t matter. He gives me the confidence to do anything.”
Espinoza started feeling the pressure of expectations once California Chrome crossed the finish line first April 5 in the Santa Anita Derby. That five-length victory stamped Chrome as the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby.
“I lost a couple of nights’ sleep when I heard he was the (Derby) favorite,” Espinoza said.
“Think about it,” he added. “The whole Derby was in my hands. It was not easy. Everybody was rooting for me. Not just California, but fans all over the place. People love this horse. They want him to win. You don’t want to let anybody down.”
When they won the Kentucky Derby on May 3, Espinoza let up in the final yards and coasted to the wire. He stood up in the stirrups and saluted the crowd of almost 165,000 fans.
“It was a relief for me,” Espinoza said. “I was more excited for the fans than me.”
In the post-race news conference, the often-stoic Espinoza broke down in tears. This Derby meant more because he could give more. For years, without fanfare, he had made steady donations to City of Hope, the Southern California cancer center near Santa Anita, contributing 10 percent of his earnings. Topped by the Derby purse, those donations have amounted to more than $48,000 this year.
When he mounts today, Espinoza will be riding in his sixth Preakness. California Chrome faces seven new challengers as well as two horses – Ride On Curlin and General a Rod – that he defeated in the Derby. Bayern, Social Inclusion and Pablo del Monte will try to set a lightning-fast pace and trick Espinoza out of Chrome’s comfort zone. The filly Ria Antonia will try to rally for a late charge.
“I’m trying not to think about it, not yet,” Espinoza said. “Absolutely, those new horses are a concern. It’s another thing I have to worry about. It’s just more pressure for me.
“Everybody focuses on my horse,” he said of the other jockeys. “Everybody will try to run down California Chrome. It’s an all new track, an all new crowd. He’s coming back in two weeks (after the Derby); that’s very tough on any horse. I don’t want to disappoint anyone who roots for my horse.”