LOUISVILLE — The quest for opportunity is often endless in Thoroughbred racing. Entire careers are spent seeking the chance to flirt with the sport's pinnacles, and even those who make it cope with the day-to-day angst of it possibly being snatched away.
His days as a jockey over and his training career stagnant, Willie Delgado's career was short on favorable breaks. So when his older brother Alberto told him last summer something greater loomed if he left his Maryland base and got a taste of what he was experiencing in Southern California, Willie packed his bags and set off on the chase.
"Things weren't going really good for him, so I said you know what, come to California," Alberto Delgado recalled. "But I told him if you do, be ready to stay because you won't want to come back (to Maryland)."
Willie Delgado is returning to Maryland this week, but not because his brother's words proved wrong. In fact, they were so accurate, the change that came about has become difficult for his elder sibling to digest.
Never miss a local story.
'What I do best'
Jockey Victor Espinoza has guided California Chrome to five straight wins, the most recent being his geared-down, 13/4-length triumph in the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. However, it is the hands and seat of exercise rider Willie Delgado that have been most familiar to the classic-winning colt during California Chrome's ascension to Triple Crown hopeful.
The California-bred will attempt to win the Crown's second leg in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
The world witnessed Delgado in a bear-hugging march with assistant trainer Alan Sherman down the Churchill Downs track as California Chrome took his first step toward possible immortality last weekend.
Since moving to California last September and joining trainer Art Sherman's team a couple months later, Delgado has done the less obvious teaching and conditioning of California Chrome during their mornings together.
Delgado says galloping horses has always been his speciality, a statement backed up by the soft hands and relaxed demeanor he maintains aboard his curious star mount.
Maximizing those skills proved difficult for the 46-year-old in recent years. A nasty spill prompted his retirement from race riding in the early 1990s, and he trained only six winners from 2009-2013.
"My brother was like, 'I'm riding some nice horses, you should come (to California) and get on them,'" said Willie Delgado, who has another brother, Gilberto Delgado, riding in the Mid-Atlantic region. "I just didn't hesitate, I took a shot. I dropped everything and took a shot. I went to work for another person and things didn't work out ... but it was for the best because I got hooked up with Art (Sherman).
"Moving to California was one of the best things I did. When I was training, I had my own horses and it was killing me in the pocket. It never peaked, I only won like six races. It was too much on me, so I went back to what I do best, galloping horses."
Prediction comes true
Alberto Delgado sold his brother on more than just the California racing scene.
He was making bold declarations about one particular mount of his — born, bred and named for the Golden State.
"When he broke his maiden at Hollywood Park I said he would win the Kentucky Derby," Alberto Delgado said, referencing his former mount California Chrome. "He was a special horse from the get-go. I kept telling everybody I'm riding the best horse in California."
Delgado was right on that account as well, a point painfully driven home for the former Eclipse Award-winning jockey when his brother celebrated in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle thanks to another rider's handiwork.
A Delgado has been involved in California Chrome's development since the moment Steve Coburn's and Perry Martin's homebred made his competitive debut. For five of the colt's first six starts, Alberto was in the irons, guiding the chestnut spitfire to two victories including a 23/4-length win in the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar last July 31.
What followed were consecutive sixth-place efforts in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and Golden State Juvenile Stakes, both of which saw California Chrome shuffled back off the early pace.
It was then that the switch to Espinoza was made. Since he and California Chrome joined forces, their winning margin has been a combined 26 lengths.
"I've known Victor a long time. He rode a lot of winners for me in northern California where I trained for a lot of years," Art Sherman said of the decision. "We needed to make a change at one time and I said, I've got the perfect jockey for this race. He fits him like a glove. He knows where to position the horse."
Just as hitting the ground at some point is a reality in a jockey's career, so too is the disappointment of losing top mounts.
The brother in Alberto Delgado could not be more proud to see his kin achieve his best success with the horse he first touted to him.
The jockey in 49-year-old Alberto Delgado doesn't pretend he can watch the replay of Kentucky Derby 140 and not feel the gut twist of what might have been for himself.
"I'd be lying to you if I said it didn't bother me a little bit," said Alberto, who has ridden more than 2,900 winners in his career. "But I've been riding for 30 years, I've been taken off good horses.
"The connections really are great people, they really are. And I'm happy for (Willie). We always hope we get to that point at some time in our career but a lot of us don't. To do that, it was awesome."
"It was bittersweet," Willie Delgado added. "I know (Alberto) understands. It would have been great if he had still been riding him but stuff like that happens."
Mixed feelings at Pimlico
Returning to Maryland with the Kentucky Derby winner means spoils on top of spoils for Willie Delgado. Not only does he bear the proud grin of being associated with the horse some are anointing a prime prospect to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, his 6-year-old daughter, Savannah — who lives in Maryland with her mother — now gets to see her dad at his absolute best.
"The first text I got was 'Daddy I can't believe you just won the Kentucky Derby. I'm so proud,'" Willie Delgado said. "I compare (winning the Derby) to my daughter being born. They're right there, the most beautiful things in my life. I thank everyone who gave me the opportunity to get on this horse."
Alberto Delgado is first in line to get an in-person outpouring of gratitude from his brother this week. However, he is still mulling whether he will pay a visit to his former mount when the colt arrives at Pimlico on Monday.
"I don't know, I still have mixed feelings about that," he said. "I might stop by, I'll probably stop by."
More certain in Alberto Delgado's mind is the opportunity he believes will hang in the balance come the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
"The sky is the limit, he's unstoppable right now," he said of California Chrome. "He just goes faster and faster and nobody can keep up with him. The crop of 3-year olds we have this year, he's the best of all of them."