04/24/2014 5:37PM

From donkeys to the Derby: Espinoza wears reminder of his humble start

Shigeki Kikkawa
Victor Espinoza has the mount on Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The donkeys. He would only ride the donkeys around his father’s goat farm because the horses were terrifying. But the donkeys, they were okay.

Then one day, he remembers he was probably 7, he summoned enough courage to climb atop one of the farm ponies.

“I was scared, but I was walking slowly,” Victor Espinoza recalled this week. “My brother Jose says, ‘You need to be jogging or galloping – it feels better.’ I said no way, but he came up from behind the horse and slapped him, and the horse took off. I was screaming and crying, but the horse, I think he felt sorry for me. He just went into his stall.

“I got off, and my legs were shaking,” Espinoza added, laughing at the memory. “I couldn’t even walk. There was no way in a million years you could have told me my career was going to be as a jockey.”

So began the story of the man who will be aboard the certifiable favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3. California Chrome, the winner of four straight stakes races by a total of 24 1/4 lengths, will give Espinoza a chance to win the Derby for the second time, and if it comes to pass, he will do it while wearing silks decorated with the image of a donkey.

Specifically, a male donkey, or a jackass, symbolic of the nom de course of owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, who have called themselves the “Dumb Ass Partners” ever since someone referred to their purchase of California Chrome’s dam as something only a dumbass would do.

Isn’t it great when life works out that way?

Espinoza, who turns 42 on May 23, has no qualms about wearing a donkey on his Derby horse. This is the same Victor Espinoza who dyed his hair bright orange to match the silks of David and Holly Wilson when he was aboard Early Pioneer in the 2000 running of the $1 million Hollywood Gold Cup. Before the race, it looked like flashy hubris since Early Pioneer was the longest shot in the field at 24-1.

After Espinoza and Early Pioneer beat the favored General Challenge by a length, horseplayers began to check jockey hairstyles.

This is also the same Victor Espinoza who was seen posing in the now-infamous “bikini silks” of owners Vicky Dimitri and Sauci Belvoir when he rode their filly Sugar Spice last year, with a hot-pink string top wrapped around the top of a light-tan background. The tittering attention made Espinoza smile, especially after they won races together at Santa Anita and Del Mar.

California Chrome brings his own flair to the party. Since Espinoza and the chestnut colt were introduced Dec. 22 in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park, their association can best be described as a display of a horse and rider in the full flush of ascending confidence. California Chrome has gone from beating statebreds sprinting, to statebreds routing, to good open company at 1 1 /16 miles, to very good open company at 1 1/8 miles in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby.

[The other brother watches: Jose Espinoza deals with career-ending injury]

In each of those races, California Chrome burst away from his opposition as if he had grown impatient with the idea of the herd. Espinoza said he has asked his colt for very little so far.

“I’ve only hit him once,” Espinoza said.

That was in the California Cup Derby, in which California Chrome was facing Del Mar Futurity winner Tamarando.

“When I let him go that day, just inside the stretch, I felt him lower himself to the ground and take off,” Espinoza said. “But I knew the other horse would be coming, so I hit him a couple times, left-handed. Man, he opened up I don’t know how many lengths.”

In the end, it was 5 1/2, with Tamarando second.

Saturday marks the anniversary of California Chrome’s debut in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race at Hollywood Park. Espinoza first noticed the colt three months later in winning the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar, a sprint restricted to California-breds. At the time, he was being ridden by the veteran Alberto Delgado.

“There was something about him I really liked,” Espinoza said. “The Del Mar Futurity was coming up, and I didn’t have a mount. I told my agent, ‘You might think I’m crazy, but the horse I like in there is Art Sherman’s horse.’ But the jockey riding him was a nice guy, and it’s really not my thing to go after his horse.”

What he did was hang around to watch California Chrome in the Futurity. What he saw, he liked, as the colt finished a troubled sixth, beaten two lengths.

“I did let myself think, ‘Maybe one day ...’ ” Espinoza said.

The day came in late December with a call from his agent, Brian Beach, that went something like this:

Agent: “Hey, you still want to ride that horse you like?”

Jockey: “Which horse is that? I like a lot of my horses.”

Agent: “The one for Art Sherman.”

Jockey: “Which one for Art Sherman?”

“I had forgotten his name,” Espinoza said. “But I had not forgotten the horse. I was very excited.”

Espinoza’s standards for excitement are high. In addition to winning the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell Invitational aboard champion War Emblem he:

◗ Provided the biggest surprise of the 2000 Breeders’ Cup with a 55-1 shocker in the $2 million Distaff aboard Ahmed Salman’s horse Spain, whose victims included champions Beautiful Pleasure, Surfside, and Riboletta.

◗ Calmed the savage beast within Zenyatta’s big sister Balance long enough to win both the Las Virgenes Stakes and Santa Anita Oaks in 2006 and the 2007 Santa Margarita.

◗ Guided The Tin Man, at age 8, to a gate-to-wire upset of the 2006 Arlington Million over a field that included past and future Breeders’ Cup Turf winners Better Talk Now and English Channel.

Stir in Grade 1 stakes wins with horses like Southern Image, Congaree, Tough Tiz’s Sis, Star Parade, Officer, The Usual Q. T., Midships, Habibti, Evening Jewel, and champion Declan’s Moon, and you have a résumé any rider could envy. As the week’s action began, Espinoza had won 3,109 races from 20,401 mounts who had earned $160.8 million. Not bad for a high-school dropout raised on a farm near Mexico City.

“I would read for 10 minutes, then get a headache,” Espinoza said. “I couldn’t pay attention, and I knew I wasn’t learning anything. I quit for a while, but when I tried to go back, I was a year behind, so I quit again. My mother said, ‘Do whatever makes you happy.’ But I wasn’t happy. I wanted a career I could dedicate myself to and earn some money, only I didn’t have any idea what it could be.”

It would not be on the family farm. That much he knew for sure.

“Working on the farm was the hardest thing you could do,” he said. “I hated it. You start when the sun comes out and don’t quit until the sun goes down.”

So, Espinoza drove a bus. He groomed horses at a private stable. He hustled his way into a job on the line at a plant manufacturing porcelain insulators.

“I was only 15, so I had to use my brother’s birth certificate so they’d think I was old enough,” Espinoza said. “I worked nights, which was okay for a while, until one night I fell asleep, right there on the floor. The cars holding the liquid porcelain backed up, the furnace overheated, and they had to shut the place down for a day. The boss said the next time that happened, I would be fired. I said, ‘You don’t have to fire me. I quit.’ ”

He was living with his older sister, floating jobless through the mean streets of Mexico City.

“It was the roughest town,” he said. “Every single day, it seemed like somebody got robbed or killed in our neighborhood. I don’t know how nothing ever happened to me.”

By then, brother Jose was working at a Quarter Horse farm near Cancun, the Mexican resort town at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. He needed another hand and called his younger brother.

“No more farms,” Espinoza replied. But his sister gave him a push.

“I told my brother what I wanted to be paid,” Espinoza said. “He said if ‘I pay you that, you’d be making more than me.’ I said I don’t care, that’s what I wanted.”

And that’s what he got. By then, Espinoza’s fear of horses had been replaced by a curiosity into what made them tick. He learned the rudiments of nutrition and veterinary care. He became an accomplished, all-around hand, rubbing his horses to a high shine, massaging their muscles, pampering their whims.

“I was ponying a horse one day – a really nice horse but crazy – and he flipped over and got loose. He ran into a fence and cut himself across the chest real deep. The vet was three hours away, but we had everything we needed there at the farm. So, I injected him and stitched him up. Two days later, the doctor came and said, ‘Damn, you did perfect, better than me.’ He ran and won a few more races.”

Espinoza’s watershed moment came upon his return to Mexico City, were he traveled with a string of 20 Quarter Horses to race at the Hipodromo de las Americas. Espinoza groomed and galloped his horses, but his eyes began to stray to the Thoroughbreds also stabled there. Soon, he knew he had discovered the career choice that had been so elusive.

“To be a Thoroughbred jockey in Mexico, you had to go to school to learn,” Espinoza said. “The man I worked for said, ‘Okay, I will send you.’ His name was Arturo Garcia, and when I won the Derby with War Emblem, he told everybody, ‘That’s my jockey.’ ”

Espinoza had just turned 20 when he won with his first mount in June 1992 at the Hipodromo. The following year, he migrated to the United States and was the leading apprentice at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, while Jose ended up riding in the East.

“And you know who I rode a lot of races for?” Espinoza said. “Art Sherman.”

The same Art Sherman who had been a jockey for 23 years before he turned to training.

“I’ve had good luck with Victor through the years,” Sherman said. “He’s a tough little rider. He won’t back down. He’s the kind of rider you want in a race like the Kentucky Derby.”

And California Chrome is the kind of horse you want to ride, as far as Espinoza is concerned. This will be his sixth Derby mount.

“I was impressed with him before the Santa Anita Derby,” the rider said. “I thought he was good, but not that good. And I’ve been around a lot of good horses. The way he ran that day, I thought, ‘This is my next star. This is the one.’ ”