ELMONT, N.Y. — It all feels so much easier this time around for Victor Espinoza, even if the veteran jockey's challenge has swelled to 12 times the difficulty since his last Triple Crown attempt.
The crackling of pressure that rang out around him in 2002 has been replaced by easy smiles and a seize-the-moment attitude now. As the 42-year-old Espinoza bounces from television appearances to even a brief stint on the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium, there is a decided lack of angst as he readies for a second attempt at history.
"This time I am more prepared, more ready to do things I will like," Espinoza said Tuesday afternoon after returning from a media briefing atop Rockefeller Center. "To get a second chance, what are the odds of that? ... I'm trying to do the things I like to do and just ... not worry about anything."
Twelve years after going through the five-week trial by fire with dual classic winner War Emblem, a more mature Espinoza has another shot at a Triple Crown when he guides Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes hero California Chrome in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the final piece needed for the chestnut colt to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner.
While no one in the last 36 years has figured out how to get their horse to sweep the American classics, giving in to the stress and 'what if' torment isn't the way to succeed.
Though it was not any mental rider error on Espinoza's part which resulted in War Emblem's eighth-place finish in the 2002 Belmont Stakes — a stumble to his knees out of the gate took care of that — there are still lessons learned from a dozen years ago.
There are always outside demands on the time of those involved when a Triple Crown is in the balance. Espinoza is handling such commitments with aplomb by making sure it all happens on his terms.
"I only do what I can when I have extra time. Because in 2002 it was too much," Espinoza said. "Before (the Belmont) everyone is trying so hard to talk to you and trying so hard to find out what is going on but in reality, that goes away.
"It happened to me in 2002, when that horse (War Emblem) stumbled and didn't win, everything goes away and ... you've basically lost business at that point. For me, my job is first and everything else is extra. I don't want to be stressing out and worried about other stuff when my main job is Saturday."
Knowing that classic success only carries a temporary shelf-life in trainers' minds, Espinoza has kept himself in position to guide a horse like California Chrome by remaining dedicated to his own physical training and overhauling his attitude when he felt the sport was getting stale a few years ago.
It doesn't hurt, either, that he has a much handier partner right now with which to try to invade racing's annals. Where War Emblem was a one-dimensional front-runner, California Chrome is more the push-button variety. The son of Lucky Pulpit has enough speed to dictate pace if need be but is handy enough to rate, and has a kick Espinoza says he has yet to get to the bottom of.
"I think I'm more confident this time than in 2002 because with War Emblem, he only had one way to go, to the front," Espinoza said. "It was difficult for me to ride when you have a front running horse because you don't have many options. If something goes wrong and that's it, your chances are gone.
"With California Chrome, it's different. I have a lot of options with Chrome. I believe I have a better chance this time than in 2002 because I have a different kind of horse, I have a lot of different tools I can use as I need it."
In an effort to reacquaint himself with the massive 11/2-mile Belmont Park oval that has tripped up many a jockey in the final leg of the Triple Crown, California-based Espinoza has himself booked on a couple of mounts at the track on Wednesday and Thursday.
He dismisses those who point out that of his more than 3,100 career wins, only two wins have come at Belmont Park. Though he has been in this space before, he hasn't been this enthused about his circumstances in some time.
"I think that this is probably my last time to be in this position because, you have to be realistic," Espinoza said. "I don't think in a million years it could happen a third time. That's why I'm just trying to have as much fun as I can and enjoy it. Enjoy myself in life, because life is too short."
Kid Cruz to skip Belmont
After speaking with the owners this morning, trainer Linda Rice said Kid Cruz has been withdrawn from consideration for Saturday's 146th Belmont Stakes.
Rice said Kid Cruz will be pointed to either the $150,000 Easy Goer on the Belmont undercard or the Grade III, $200,000 Dywer at Belmont Park on July 5. Both races are for 3-year-olds at 11⁄16 miles.
In his most recent start, Kid Cruz ran eighth of 10, beaten 16 lengths by California Chrome in the Preakness.
"We have decided to pass on the Belmont," Rice said. "Frankly, he didn't perform at Pimlico. It was a flat effort on his part. We'll just look for an easy race for him to get him back on track. It's a long summer."