05/12/2002 11:00PM

Espinoza taking his bows


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Roxanne Losey and Kevin Mangold, young performers on the Hollywood stage, were discussing recent reviews in the trades while biding their time in the jockeys' room over the weekend.

"Look at this," said Losey, turning to the handicapper's comments accompanying the seventh race in the program. She was riding the longshot D'Behr. "It says, 'Keeps the cold rider.' Cold? I've only ridden two races! How does that make me cold?"

Mangold grinned and shook his head.

"Wait until you make the 'Who's hot-Who's not' list in the Times," he said, referring to a feature on the racing pages of the local paper. "I've been in there twice. Both times as a 'Who's not.' "

The young riders can take heart, and perhaps even find some comfort in the fact that it was only four years ago that Victor Espinoza was denied entry through a Hollywood Park pass gate for lack of official identification.

At that point, all he had done was lead the apprentice standings in northern California and win two riding championships at Fairplex Park.

Is this a tough room or what?

There is no question that right now Victor Espinoza is jalapeno hot. He descended upon Hollywood Park the day after the Kentucky Derby to win the Inglewood Handicap on Night Patrol, wire to wire, no less. Last Saturday he traveled to Chicago to win the Hawthorne Derby on Flying Dash. Then he was back home in L.A. on Sunday, winning three races to pad his lead in the local standings while fielding a day full of interviews.

His victory aboard War Emblem in the Kentucky Derby was accomplished with a sure hand. He was so clearly in command every step of the way that no one could fail to recognize Espinoza as a rising star. Yes, the pace was slow and the pressure never materialized. But Espinoza, who first rode at a farm near his native Mexico City, did everything right when the whole racing world was watching.

"When I went to the gate for the Derby, I had no clue how I was going to ride this horse," Espinoza said. "Afterwards I read all these comments about how he got away with an easy lead. This I'm hearing from riders who were in the race, the best jockeys in the world who were riding all the best 3-year-olds. I would ask them, what were they waiting for?"

"Victor rode a great race," said Eddie Delahoussaye, who tried to attack War Emblem on the turn for home aboard Perfect Drift. "He closed it up on me just enough to discourage my horse when I was thinking about going inside. That probably didn't make any difference in the outcome, but it was a good move."

"I believe that's the first time I've ever seen Victor not hit a horse," said Gary Stevens, who had a good view from the middle of the Derby pack aboard Johannesburg. "The guy wins his first Kentucky Derby without turning his stick."

It was a good-natured rib, and Stevens, a three-time Derby winner, was being nothing but complimentary. Still, in his seven years as a regular face on the Southern California circuit, Espinoza undeniably developed a reputation of a rider who drew the whip first and asked questions later.

His style, not surprisingly, has become more sophisticated as he has come to ride better horses for the best stables, which has been happening since his breakthrough year of 2000. That's when he won riding titles at both Hollywood and Del Mar.

"I learn something every day, but you can't learn everything in one day," Espinoza said. Makes sense.

"A lot of people like to joke that I can't ride without the whip," he went on. "I want to show them, when I have the horse, I can do anything I want. But when you don't have the horse, you have to do whatever it takes to win. That's why I prepare myself for anything. Hand ride, whip ride - that's my style."

His style also includes driving fast, expensive sports cars (Ferrari, Acura NSX, Lamborghini) and maintaining a low-key existence away from the track, spent primarily at his health club in Pasadena and in his home in the hills above Santa Anita Park. His pride and joy is his front-yard rose garden, which has become the envy of his neighbors.

"I have a very private life," Espinoza said. "I don't go out much. I do my own thing. I try to take care of myself, for the future. I want to have a long career."

It would be a mistake to doubt him. Espinoza's career arc has been steady and upward, and he only turns 30 on May 23. By then, he could be looking at a chance to win the Triple Crown, depending upon War Emblem's performance in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on Saturday.

The party line says that War Emblem won't win because he will never get away with another slow pace, as he did in the Derby. Espinoza is not fazed. He likes being on the horse that makes everyone fret.

"If you're a professional jockey, and you want to win the race, you ought to be riding your own horse and not worry about anybody else," Espinoza said. "And I know I'm not gonna run out of horse."