05/01/2017 3:40PM

Derby scene never gets old for three-time winner Espinoza

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Barbara D. Livingston
Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley could give jockey Victor Espinoza his fourth Kentucky Derby win.

When Victor Espinoza rides Gormley in the post parade of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, he will sneak a glance at the jammed grandstand at Churchill Downs.

“The thing you see are the colors,” Espinoza recalled last weekend. “It never gets old. This is what we work for.”

There will be little time for sightseeing. Gormley will need a warm-up.

“Everybody is having fun, and I have to work,” Espinoza said with a laugh.

Espinoza has won the Kentucky Derby three times, first with War Emblem in 2002. His last two victories have been aboard two of the most popular winners in a generation – California Chrome in 2014 and American Pharoah in 2015. American Pharoah went on to sweep the Triple Crown.

“It never gets old,” he said. “After you win, you get more excited. I want to win it again. The Derby is always fun.”

Riding American Pharoah in the Triple Crown was a life changer. That summer, Espinoza was a contestant on the television show “Dancing with the Stars.” He danced his way past the first round, one program longer than Chaka Khan, before being eliminated.

“It’s remarkable how many people watched me on that,” he said. “It was fun. I met a lot of interesting people.”

Fortunately for Espinoza, the show was taped in Los Angeles on Mondays, clear of his racing obligations. When his involvement in the program ended, he went back to work. A few months later, American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Last year, the highlights of the season were California Chrome’s wins in the $10 million Dubai World Cup and Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

This year, there have already been highlights off the track. On April 24, Espinoza was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony for the class of 2017 will be held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in early August.

The 44-year-old Espinoza, who moved from his native Mexico to the United States in 1993, has won 3,322 races in North America. Several days after the Hall of Fame announcement, Espinoza was still in a state of amazement.

“It’s a dream to be part of it,” he said. “What are the odds when I started riding I’d win the Triple Crown and be in the Hall of Fame?”

The Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, and other big events have become a focus for Espinoza. Based in Southern California, Espinoza emphasizes quality mounts over quantity and has results to show.

In April, Espinoza won four races after going winless in March. Three of the April wins were stakes: two Grade 1 races for Thoroughbreds – the $1 million Santa Anita Derby aboard Gormley and the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Stellar Wind – and a Grade 1 stakes for Arabians at Santa Anita.

“I’m happy with the way things are going right now,” he said. “I’m focused on the big horses.

“As long as I have good horses to ride, as long as there is the next one, it makes me motivate myself and stay in shape. I work out a lot. If I’m not in shape, we’re not a good team.”

Gormley, owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by John Shirreffs, has won 4 of 6 starts and earned $920,000. Espinoza has ridden Gormley in all of his races, including a win in the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes last October and a disappointing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November.

This year, Gormley won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at a mile in January and finished a dull fourth in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes in March before the win in the Santa Anita Derby.

In the Santa Anita Derby, Gormley closed from fifth in a field of 13 to win by a half-length over Battle of Midway, who is also part of the Kentucky Derby field. Espinoza said Gormley needs a stalking trip in the crowded field on Saturday.

“If I can get him in a good position, he can do what I know he can do,” Espinoza said. “I want to put him in the right direction. I like the way he’s going. He’s a happy horse.”

California Chrome and American Pharoah were favored. Gormley will be about 12-1.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance,” Espinoza said. ”If he runs his race, I think he can win the race.”

If that happens, Espinoza and Gormley will be the center of attention for a raucous audience. Espinoza knows how to find that famous winner’s circle. The view toward the stands from there is even better than the post parade.