Laid-back Espinoza bides his time until Belmont
By Beth Harris
PASADENA, Calif. - Talk to Victor Espinoza, and he never utters the words "Belmont Stakes'' or "Triple Crown.''
It's because the jockey who rode War Emblem to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness -- the first two legs of horse racing's Triple Crown -- doesn't want to contemplate what awaits on June 8 just yet.
``Right now I don't have any pressure and I try not to think about that because it's still two weeks to the race,'' he said, leaning against a weight machine at the Pasadena gym he co-owns and works out at five days a week, two hours a day.
``At this point, I just enjoy myself and relax as much as I can because I know when it gets close to the next race, it's going to be a little bit tough for me,'' he said.
Espinoza has known ``tough'' since growing up one of 12 kids on a farm outside Mexico City. Milking cows made him envision a different life.
He once worked as a bus driver in Mexico City.
``It's a lot easier riding horses than driving in that traffic,'' he said.
Espinoza took riding lessons after high school and attended a jockey's school in Mexico. He rode his first winner at Mexico City's Hippodromo de las Americas in 1992.
By 1993, he had immigrated to Northern California, where he was the leading apprentice rider at Bay Meadows and then Golden Gate Fields.
But he was lonely. He didn't know anyone and didn't speak English. Typical of Espinoza's drive to better himself, he took English classes. He banned Spanish-language TV and music in his home and car, so he could focus on his new skill.
Today, Espinoza speaks English slowly and carefully. Unless it's after a race. In the chaos following the Derby and Preakness, a shocked Espinoza struggled to articulate to trainer Bob Baffert what happened.
``I usually wind up talking to him in Spanish,'' Baffert said. ``He gets too excited when he tries to explain himself in English.''
Espinoza, who turned 30 on Thursday, shrugged off Baffert's frustration.
``It's his job to talk,'' he said. ``My job is just to get on the horse and win the race.''
A year ago, Baffert didn't think Espinoza did his job, finishing third in his first Derby aboard Congaree. The trainer believed Espinoza had moved too soon in the race and replaced him.
Espinoza rebounded with a Preakness mount on A P Valentine, who finished second, a neck ahead of Congaree, ridden by Jerry Bailey. Espinoza went on to finish second in the Belmont.
``If he takes me off the horses, I know he's going to come back to me, so that's why I don't worry about it,'' Espinoza said, laughing at the memory of his firing.
``I know nobody can ride those horses like me. I'm not going to say it to him, but I know.''
So does Ahmed bin Salman, the Saudi prince who bought War Emblem for $900,000 three weeks before the Derby.
Salman's relationship with Espinoza dates back to 2000, when the jockey rode Spain to an upset victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The filly paid $133.80 to win for The Thoroughbred Corp., Salman's racing outfit.
At the time, Salman said he chose Espinoza because the jockey shared the name of the 17th century philosopher.
``So this guy has a good pedigree,'' the prince said.
``He's always right there when I need him,'' said Espinoza, who was kissed by the prince after the Preakness. ``He trusts me to ride the best horses he has.''
Espinoza emerged as one of the nation's best riders two years ago. Besides the Breeders' Cup, he captured riding titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, and his mounts earned $13.2 million -- nearly four times his earnings in 1999.
``Every time he's given an opportunity, he makes the best out of it, even when he doesn't ride the favorite,'' said Tony Matos, Espinoza's agent of four years. ``It's an asset for racing to have a rider like him. He's clean-cut, he works out. He came from the bottom and worked his way up.''
Espinoza shares his success by sending money to his family in Mexico, where they will watch the Belmont. His older brother, Jose, will be in New York, where he rides. Another brother, Leo, exercises horses in Los Angeles.
``If you help your family, it's going to help you, too,'' he said.
In 1998, though, Espinoza was still finding his way. He had moved his tack to Hollywood Park, but he was so little known that on Hollywood Gold Cup day, he couldn't gain admission to the track. It wasn't until a security guard who recognized him came along and let him in.
The same thing happened on Derby day.
Baffert summoned Espinoza to his barn early on May 4 to watch a tape of War Emblem, whom the jockey had never seen or ridden before. But Espinoza's cab driver couldn't get past tightened security at the stable gate, so he dropped Espinoza at the jockey's room.
Espinoza started the nearly half-mile walk to the backside, but without his Derby credentials, he was stopped by security. The guard didn't let Espinoza pass until he autographed a program.
``I just let things go,'' said Espinoza, known around the track for his engaging smile and friendliness.
Until Belmont week, Espinoza is determined to stick to his daily routine. He rides Wednesdays through Sundays at Hollywood Park, where he's currently second in the jockey standings.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, non-racing days, Espinoza may hop in his yellow Lamborghini and go for a spin. Or play with his two Great Danes, Flash and Roxy, who each outweigh the 110-pound jockey by 20 pounds.
He always makes time for his workouts, and adheres to a diet that would be deprivation for most people. He hasn't had a cheeseburger in two years.
If War Emblem wins the Belmont, Espinoza has a celebration in mind, although he doesn't want to reveal his plans yet.
``It's going to be something different,'' he said. ``Maybe I'll eat a cheeseburger and pizza this time.''