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‘Hall of Fame jockey? Yeah, right’: Espinoza back at Belmont with welcomed pressure

Jockey Victor Espinoza waves after Gormley won the Santa Anita Derby on April 8 at Santa Anita in Arcadia.
Jockey Victor Espinoza waves after Gormley won the Santa Anita Derby on April 8 at Santa Anita in Arcadia. Benoit Photo

Jockey Victor Espinoza only seems like a laid-back guy. Always smiling and often joking, he’s become the most famous rider in America, thanks in part to his easy-going charm as well as assignments on world-class horses.

Newly elected to racing’s National Hall of Fame, Espinoza returns to Belmont Park for Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes with mixed emotions. He’s only won the Belmont once, but that was enough to make history.

Espinoza lost two Triple Crowns at the famed New York track: with War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome in 2014. But the next year, he won the Triple Crown – the first in 37 years – aboard American Pharoah.

“A lot of good memories and also bad memories from before,” the 45-year-old jockey said of the Belmont Stakes. “So, I balanced it out, good and bad, but the last one – it was great. It’s one of the things that I would never forget as long as I’ll be around.”

In his first Belmont since Pharoah’s breathtaking victory, he’s back again with a speedy California hopeful, Gormley.

Like California Chrome, Gormley won the Santa Anita Derby before heading to Louisville, Ky., for the first leg of the Triple Crown. But Gormley suffered through a sloppy Kentucky Derby and finished ninth, 14 1/4 lengths behind Always Dreaming.

“In the Kentucky Derby, he did not show up that day,” Espinoza said. “I don’t feel like he was even trying to run.”

With Derby winner Always Dreaming and Preakness victor Cloud Computing skipping the Belmont, this classic is wide open, Espinoza noted. Gormley is among five Derby also-rans in the Belmont’s field of 12.

“I think the (1 1/2-mile) distance would be good for him,” he said. “I think he will run a big race on a big track.”

Espinoza earned his Hall of Fame credentials with huge performances in big races. He’s won 3,321 out of 21,696 starts. That includes three victories each in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. His mounts have earned more than $196 million. Currently, he’s the regular rider of champion Stellar Wind, the nation’s top-rated mare.

The 11th of 12 children, Espinoza came from humble beginnings in his native Mexico. He grew up milking cows on a dairy farm. To earn tuition to go to jockey school, he drove a metro bus in Mexico City.

Early riding success in Mexico led him to Golden Gate Fields, where he became the top apprentice in 1994. He soon transferred his tack to Santa Anita, where he’s been based most of his career.

Being in the right place at the right time put Espinoza atop California Chrome, Horse of the Year in 2014 and 2016, and American Pharoah, who took top honors in 2015 along with the Triple Crown.

Espinoza has taken some time to reflect on that three-year title run.

“Just to think about how lucky I was in those years to have one of the world’s best horses, California Chrome, and the following year, to have one of the greatest, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. You know you can dream to have those top, top horses back to back and I was just the one to be part of that and ride them,” he said.

“But that requires a lot of energy, a lot of work and a lot of time, too,” he added, “and a lot of pressure, also, and a lot of fun.”

As for the Hall of Fame, Espinoza says he feels it puts extra pressure on him.

“For me, I think it’s more pressure because every time I go out on the track and ride a horse, if I make any mistake, (the fans) are going to criticize and say, ‘Look, there’s a Hall of Fame jockey? Yeah, right,’ ” he said with a self-effacing chuckle. “But if I perform good and if I ride good, they’re going to say, ‘Well, that’s why he is a Hall of Famer,’ right? So, I have to deal with those consequences in the long run. But it should be fun.”

Espinoza hasn’t thought about the August induction ceremony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home of Saratoga Race Course. He’s never visited the National Museum of Racing, home to the sport’s Hall of Fame.

“Honestly, I have no clue how this thing works, to be in the Hall of Fame, because I’ve never been in there,” he said.

Espinoza’s easy-going reputation has taken some work, too, he noted. He used to stress out, especially before big races. He tried to prepare himself mentally for losing.

“When you win, it doesn’t matter what you say; you’re a champion,” he said. “But if I get beat, I have to be pretty much ready. I always tell all the young riders, ‘You have to be ready and more prepared when you lose.’ 

Instead, he tries to stay loose – and laugh. Before big races, he watches cartoons and jokes with other jockeys.

“I do not stress myself and do not worry about what’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s so much pressure, so many what ifs. But it’s all in your mind. I like to think positive.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Meet the field

Post time for the 149th Belmont Stakes at 1  1/2 miles is 3:47 p.m. Saturday (Ch. 3):

Horse

Odds

1. Twisted Tom

20-1

2. Tapwrit

6-1

3. Gormley

8-1

4. J Boys Echo

15-1

5. Hollywood Handsome

30-1

6. Lookin At Lee

5-1

7. Irish War Cry

7-2

8. Senior Investment

12-1

9. Meantime

15-1

10. Multiplier

15-1

11. Epicharis

4-1

12. Patch

12-1

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