05/03/2014 7:50PM

For Espinoza, fear has turned to Kentucky Derby success

Barbara D. Livingston
Victor Espinoza after winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday aboard California Chrome. Espinoza also won the Derby in 2002 aboard War Emblem.

LOUISVILLE, Ky.- Jockey Victor Espinoza said that when he was a youngster growing up in Mexico, he was afraid of horses.

“Look at me now, I’ve won two Kentucky Derbies,” Espinoza said after winning the Derby on Saturday aboard the 5-2 favorite California Chrome, a horse he’s ridden to five consecutive victories for 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman.

Espinoza, who turns 42 later this month, won his first Kentucky Derby aboard longshot War Emblem for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in 2002. 

Espinoza drove a bus in his hometown of Mexico City before taking riding lessons and attending jockey school for a year, which is mandatory for all jockeys in Mexico. He began his career in 1992, winning for the first time at the Hippodromo de las Americas before moving his tack to California the following year. Espinoza spent several seasons in Northern California, where he first rode for Sherman.

Espinoza’s breakout year came in 2000, when he won or shared three major riding titles, rode Spain to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff for another Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, and finished seventh nationally on the money earnings list. He posted his 3,000th career victory on May 31, 2013 at Hollywood Park.

“It’s an amazing feeling, to win two Kentucky Derbies,” Espinoza said Saturday. “I never thought in a million years I’d ever win one Kentucky Derby when I started my career. I felt we had a lot of pressure on us, going into the Derby today as the favorite. But I told Art after the race, now the pressure is really going to be on.”

Espinoza said there is a big difference between his two Derby winners, War Emblem and California Chrome.

“They are two completely different horses,” said Espinoza, whose brother Jose was a jockey before being forced to retire because of brain damge suffered in a spill, and was in attendance at Churchill Downs on Saturday. “Of course, they’re both tremendously talented. But War Emblem had only one way to go. I had to let him go in front. With this guy, I have a lot of options. He can go to the lead or rate off the pace. It makes my job a lot easier.”

Espinoza said he felt the break was the key to his victory on Saturday.

“I was a little concerned being in post 5 and just wanted to break him as quickly as possible,” said Espinoza. “I wanted to get him out there running and he did and it worked out well. For a moment, right before the wire the first time, I thought about sending him to the lead. Then I made the decision to take him back and sit third. I got a little concerned when I got trapped a little bit in there down the backstretch, and was relieved when I finally was able to get him out. He was going so strong at the three-eighths pole. He was so smooth turning for home, and once I let him go, that was it.”

Espinoza said he donates 10 percent of all his earnings to the City of Hope, a charity that benefits children who have cancer, so the money he won on Saturday made California Chrome’s victory extra special to him.

“One day I went to visit some kids in the hospital who had cancer and it was heartbreaking," he said. "I broke down and cried seeing all these young kids who can’t have the life we have. It changed my life seeing 6- and 8- and 10-year-olds sick with cancer like that. I just hope with the money I earned today, I can make a difference in at least one of those kids' lives.”

Espinoza has certainly made a big difference since joining forces with California Chrome, who had won only twice in six starts before the two teamed up for the first time last winter at Hollywood Park.

“It’s like a dream to me,” said Espinoza who also won the Preakness aboard War Emblem before missing out on the Triple Crown in 2002. “I was very close the last time, just one step away. Hopefully, this time, we can go all the way.”