The opportunity of a lifetime had supposedly come and gone for jockey Victor Espinoza. So as he sat in the lobby of Long Island's Garden City Hotel last June discussing the second chance fate had dropped in his hands, he took a measured moment for some reflection and acceptance.
"I think that this is probably my last time to be in this position, because you have to be realistic," Espinoza told the Herald-Leader. "I don't think in a million years it could happen a third time."
In that sense, Espinoza was correct. This time, his case of dèjá vu showed up again in only 12 months.
Thirteen years ago, Espinoza's first shot at history was brought to its knees when War Emblem stumbled out of the gate in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. The eighth-place finish ended his bid at becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
A chance at the rarest of do-overs materialized last season when Espinoza guided eventual Horse of the Year California Chrome to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Yet the only exclusive club Espinoza would be part of after the colt's fourth-place effort in the final leg of the Triple Crown was joining Hall of Famers Bill Hartack, Milo Valenzuela and Kent Desormeaux as the only jockeys to try and fail twice at sweeping the American classics.
The annals of racing have been exceptionally gracious in extending Espinoza another invite. In the 147th Belmont Stakes on June 6, he is slated to become the first jockey to have a third opportunity at winning the Triple Crown — and the first to have back-to-back chances — when he climbs aboard champion American Pharoah. They'll try to grab a prize that has 37 years worth of walls surrounding it.
"It's just amazing to be in this position that I'm at right now," Espinoza said the morning after guiding American Pharoah to a 7-length romp in the Preakness Stakes. "To win the Derby and the Preakness last year and to come back with another amazing horse in American Pharoah ... I've been down many times in the Belmont, but it's still one of my favorite places and I'm coming back again. That's a good feeling to have. Hopefully third time is the charm."
The wide-eyed look of joy on Espinoza's 43-year-old face says all one needs to know about the statistical anomaly.
His career numbers already make him Hall of Fame-worthy, an honor for which he was a finalist for this year. Since beginning his career in 1993, Espinoza has amassed more than 3,200 career victories — 219 of which are graded stakes triumphs — and earnings of more than $182.2 million.
Yet after his Triple Crown experience with War Emblem, the flood gates weren't exactly opened up for classic success. Between 2002 and Espinoza's Derby triumph on California Chrome, the native of Mexico only had six mounts in Triple Crown races, none finishing better than seventh.
As much as he is being hailed again for his big-race ability, Espinoza endured one of his leanest seasons in 2012 when he won just a single graded stakes.
"It's amazing how life is. After I won the first (Derby on War Emblem in 2002), four or five years went by and I never dreamed I'd go back again," Espinoza said. "In 2002, I was young and ... it was a big deal but not as big of a deal to me as now. To come back and now win the Preakness again too, it's crazy."
There is something to be said for establishing solid working relationships that will one day help give fate a nudge.
Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert were on the War Emblem roller coaster together and have tag-teamed countless times since. And when Zayat Stables won its first Grade I race in 2006 with Point Ashley, it was Espinoza in the irons guiding the filly home.
When fellow jockey Martin Garcia committed to ride Holiday Camp in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last September, the mount came open on the Baffert-trained, Zayat homebred American Pharoah, who had lost his career debut at Del Mar in August.
Espinoza got the call and he has yet to experience anything other than awe from the bay son of Pioneerof the Nile, winning six consecutive starts including superiority displays in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
"I have seen the maturity and how Victor has become even a better rider over the years," Ahmed Zayat said. "The classic example ... is in the Arkansas Derby. Victor tested our colt and took the moment to see if he can rate. He rode with such confidence, such brilliance."
While Espinoza still fondly refers to California Chrome as "my boy," he points out the weaknesses he has yet to see in American Pharoah. Where the former couldn't handle being stuck down inside, American Pharoah has fired from any position including his gate-to-wire clinic in the Preakness when he broke from the rail.
"California Chrome, it was not really his thing to be inside. So every time I rode him, I had to find my way out because, if not, I feel like he's not running his race," Espinoza said. "American Pharoah is pretty straightforward. I really don't know how good he can be. He does it so easy."
A year later, Espinoza reveals he wasn't the picture of confidence heading into last season's Belmont Stakes.
"He was not in the same condition as before," Espinoza recalled of California Chrome. "His work was not very impressive to me and ... I was just a little bit depressed going into the race."
The tremendous flesh American Pharoah has maintained and his easy-as-he-pleased 4-furlong work in :48 at Churchill Downs on Tuesday have given faith that the Triple Crown chant of "maybe next year" will get a long-awaited hiatus.
"You'd think he'd be able to figure it out by now," Baffert, who himself is trying to capitalize on his fourth chance at the Triple Crown, joked about Espinoza's third try. "I told Victor, if the horse fires, he'll win it. If he runs his race, he can do it."