Victor Espinoza and Bob Baffert may be one of the most successful jockey-trainer combinations in Kentucky Derby history. That does not mean their relationship on the first Saturday in May has not been complicated.
In 2001, Espinoza was a 28-year-old rising star riding in his first Derby. Aboard a capable Baffert-trained colt named Congaree, Espinoza came home third.
Yet rather than congratulations, Baffert booted the Mexican rider off the horse, upset that Espinoza had gotten Congaree hooked in a withering speed duel.
The very next year, however, it was Espinoza who rode Baffert's War Emblem to a wire-to-wire Derby victory.
"Victor and I, we have a lot of history going back," Baffert said.
So, somehow, it seemed fitting that, before Espinoza rode Baffert's favored American Pharoah in the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday in Louisville, the trainer gave the now-veteran jockey conflicting instructions.
"(Friday), he texted me," Espinoza said of Baffert. "He said, you know what, just send him. Go to the front. I said, 'OK, Bob, that's a good idea.'"
Yet, in the Churchill Downs paddock in the minutes before the Derby, Baffert called an audible.
"I just said, 'You know what, Victor, ... you just ride your horse," Baffert said. "You are one of the best riders in the country. You know the horse better than I do. You just ride your race."
Espinoza did just that. In doing so, he elevated his name — and Baffert's — high up the lists of Kentucky Derby all-time greats.
Getting a masterful, stalking ride from Espinoza, American Pharoah made a strong move in the turn for home and ground down the game Firing Line and barnmate Dortmund to win the Derby before a record crowd of 170,513.
With the win, Espinoza, who won the 140th Derby on California Chrome, became the sixth jockey to win the Kentucky Derby back-to-back. The 42-year-old is now one of only 10 jockeys to win as many as three Kentucky Derbys.
Baffert is now one of only four trainers to have won the Run for the Roses at least four times.
From the 17 post, Espinoza moved American Pharoah forward sharply out of the gate and had him forwardly placed in third by the quarter pole.
Turns out, it was Baffert's other entrant, the previously unbeaten Dortmund, who set early fractions (:23.24 for the first quarter mile, :47.34 for a half mile) that were quick, but not suicidal.
In a sense, Espinoza might have won the Kentucky Derby with his ride on American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby. At Oaklawn Park, Espinoza rated Pharoah — a horse who had been first in all but one call in his first three career wins — behind the pace-setting Bridget's Big Luvy.
After showing he did not have to be in the lead, American Pharoah roared to an 8-length victory.
So in Louisville on Saturday, Espinoza knew he had a horse that did not have to be on the lead. By the top of the stretch, the Mexico City native had Pharoah in perfect position.
Still, Espinoza had to ride American Pharoah hard to grind down Firing Line. "The other horse was kind of tough," Espinoza said. "But turning for home, I knew I got him. I knew it was just a matter of time.
For a pairing with the Derby history of Espinoza and Baffert, it seemed right that it was together they etched their names so high in the race's history books.
"I can tell that Victor was a better rider now than he was 10 years ago," Baffert said. "Now, he's like Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, you put them on a good horse and they're going to get you there. ... Today (Espinoza) had to work for it. He made the difference."
A year ago, after he had won his second Derby on California Chrome, Espinoza said one of the first people to congratulate him was a certain silver-haired horse trainer.
"Baffert, he tell me, you and I, next year," Espinoza said. "What were the odds? We were just joking around. Yet, here we are."