When the Kentucky Derby is run Saturday at Churchill Downs, Victor Espinoza, the jockey for the last two winners, will be aboard a horse named Whitmore he has never ridden before.
In fact, last week it appeared as if Espinoza, who won in 2014 on California Chrome and last year rode American Pharoah to the sport’s first Triple Crown in 37 years, would be left out of this year’s Derby. How does that happen?
“Some people probably they think I don’t need to win another one,” the 43-year-old said Monday morning at Churchill Downs. “I might not need it, but I want it.”
Actually, this is more an example of the musical chairs nature of the profession in which matches are made and fingers are crossed early on the Kentucky Derby trail.
Espinoza’s mount was Smokey Image, a California-bred who won his first six races for trainer Carla Gaines. Then Smokey Image ran fifth in the San Felipe. A month later, he ran seventh in the Santa Anita Derby. Suddenly, Espinoza, who you thought would be on the top of every trainer’s Derby list, no longer had a Derby ride.
“There just wasn’t a lot of movement this year,” said his agent, Brian Beach. “Most of the jockeys stuck with the horses they had all along.”
There’s still a lot of interest from the outside world about doing this show and that show and Victor has been the good soldier for horse racing and done everything with a smile on his face.
Brian Beach, Victor Espinoza’s agent
It probably didn’t help that Espinoza hasn’t been a consistent presence on his home California circuit. Such is life for a Triple Crown winner. He was a contestant on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. He appeared on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He rode California Chrome in the Dubai World Cup. He went to Japan for an All-Star jockey competition. He went with Bob Baffert to England to accept an award for American Pharoah.
“When I went with Jimmy Fallon and we were racing motorcycles, that was the most fun show I’ve ever done,” Espinoza said. “Dancing with the Stars, it was fun but it was very intense. . . . I felt like those 2-year-olds when the first time they go to the track, they don’t know what to do.”
“There’s been a carryover and a hangover, in a good way,” Beach said. “There’s still a lot of interest from the outside world about doing this show and that show and Victor has been the good soldier for horse racing and done everything with a smile on his face. But there hasn’t been a week go by without multiple media requests.”
Were it not for such requests, Espinoza wouldn’t have even been in Louisville right now. He was invited to the Kentucky Derby Museum on Sunday night for the unveiling of the new American Pharoah wing. Monday night, he received the Bill Hartack Award. He is to return to California for Thursday’s opening day at Santa Anita, where he will ride, then take a red-eye flight back to Louisville to be at Churchill Downs on Friday morning.
The reason: Whitmore, who finished third in the Arkansas Derby for jockey Irad Ortiz and trainer Ron Moquette. Ortiz rides regularly for Chad Brown, who has My Man Sam (second in the Blue Grass Stakes) and Shagaf (Gotham winner). Ortiz chose My Man Sam, which freed up Whitmore for Espinoza.
“We had our eye on Whitmore all along because we thought this might happen,” Beach said. “We made a call after the Arkansas Derby and it worked out.”
“The more I look at him, the more I like him,” said Espinoza, pointing to his troubled trip in the Arkansas Derby. “For a horse like him to come back and still finish third I think it was an amazing race.”
On the one hand, while Espinoza is one of six to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbys, no jockey has won it three straight times. On the other, Espinoza had never ridden War Emblem before the two teamed up to win the 2002 Kentucky Derby.
“As long as I have a horse in the race,” said Espinoza, smiling. “I always think in my mind I have a chance to win.”
Back-to-back Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys
Isaac Murphy: 1890 (Riley); 1891 (Kingman)
Jimmy Winkfield: 1901 (His Eminence); 1902 (Alan-a-Dale)
Ron Turcotte: 1972 on Riva Ridge; 1973 (Secretariat)
Eddie Delahoussaye: 1982 (Gato del Sol); 1983 (Sunny’s Halo)
Calvin Borel: 2009 (Mine That Bird); 2010 (Super Saver)
Victor Espinoza: 2014 (California Chrome); 2015 (American Pharoah)