Mark Story: For Espinoza, a California 'dream'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 3, 2014 

LOUISVILLE — In the 21st century, jockeys watch more "game tape" than Nick Saban. So it was last summer, Victor Espinoza was studying video of a horse he was preparing to ride at Del Mar.

Try as he might, however, his eyes kept being drawn to a different horse, a modestly-bred 2-year-old called California Chrome.

"I see a lot of talent," Espinoza said.

The jockey, who had never come close to recapturing the glory of 2002 when he guided War Emblem to a front-running win in the Kentucky Derby, got on the phone with his agent, Brian Beach. Espinoza told him he'd found a 2-year-old he really wanted to ride.

"Then I forget about it," Espinoza said. "Then, my agent called me after the Breeders' Cup and says 'Your favorite horse, you want to ride him?'"

So started the process that allowed Victor Espinoza, riding in his sixth Kentucky Derby, to add his name to the list of jockeys who have won the race more than once.

Getting an expert ride from Espinoza, favored California Chrome stormed to the lead entering the stretch Saturday and won the 140th running of America's premier horse race by 13/4 lengths before the second largest crowd, 164,906, ever to fill Churchill Downs for a Kentucky Derby.

The time was a pedestrian 2:03.66, the slowest Derby run over a fast track since 1974. However, other California Chrome numbers were quite impressive.

The Kentucky Derby was the fifth win in a row for Espinoza aboard California Chrome since the horse's connections replaced Alberto Delgado with the 41-year-old Mexico City native before the King Glorious Stakes on Dec. 22.

"He fits him like a glove," Art Sherman, California Chrome's trainer, said of Espinoza. "He knows him, knows where to position the horse."

Coming into the cavalry charge that is the Derby, the conventional wisdom held that there were two areas in which the favored California Chrome was vulnerable.

One was the start of the race. In its pre-Derby coverage, NBC showed a montage of problems California Chrome had endured trying to break cleanly from the starting gate in his previous races.

"I wanted to get running out of the gate, basically," Espinoza said of his pre-race strategy.

Mission accomplished. California Chrome and Espinoza broke so sharply that, fleetingly, the jockey pondered going for a rerun of his wire-to-wire Derby victory on War Emblem 12 years ago.

Yet that very idea brought to the fore the other potential bugaboo for California Chrome — getting caught in a withering Derby speed duel.

So Espinoza let Uncle Sigh and Chitu move past his horse, then tried to tuck California Chrome just behind the leaders — but in a place where his horse would not have dirt kicked in its face.

Fleetingly, Espinoza wondered if that decision had blown the race before the horses even entered the first turn.

"My heart started going like a hundred miles an hour," he said. "I didn't want him trapped."

He wasn't. In fact, by the first turn California Chrome was perfectly placed near the lead of a race that, by Derby standards, produced reasonable early fractions (47.37 for the first half mile).

"When I hit the first turn, my horse's head was just a little bit outside the front horses," Espinoza said. "... I think that won the race right there."

In a jubilant post-race news conference, Espinoza broke down in tears when he talked about visiting children with cancer at the City of Hope in Los Angeles. The jockey said he donates 10 percent of all his earnings to the hospital.

"It makes me cry to see all the kids that can't have a life like we have," Espinoza said.

In that moment, it was very easy to feel good for Victor Espinoza.

Turns out, some extra video work — and an eye for talent — can take a jockey to horse racing's promised land.

"Awesome," Espinoza said, "just a dream."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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