07/17/2006 11:00PM

Espinoza's smile may get even bigger

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Victor Espinoza led at Hollywood and could repeat at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Del Mar is the kind of place that puts a smile on your face, but jockey Victor Espinoza will arrive here with one in tow. Espinoza is coming off a Hollywood Park meeting in which he was the leading rider, and he is the defending champion at Del Mar, where he has won the riding title twice in the last six years.

Espinoza is in demand as a big-money rider in stakes, and has live mounts in both Grade 1 handicaps here this weekend, with Memorette in the John Mabee on Saturday and Silent Name in the Eddie Read on Sunday. For someone who is unfailingly good-natured even when things are rough, Espinoza is proving that nice guys can, indeed, finish first.

"It's work, it's my job, but I also want to have a good time at my job," Espinoza said. "I'm not going to be upset if I don't win one race. Everybody has their problems, but for me, when I'm at work, I forget my problems."

It has been four years since Espinoza, 34, rocketed to national prominence when he won the Kentucky Derby with War Emblem. Since then, through a combination of his own hard work and attrition in the Southern California riding colony, Espinoza has steadily ascended the standings to where he is a force at every meet.

At Hollywood Park, Espinoza won the CashCall Mile with Dance in the Mood, the Beverly Hills Handicap with Memorette, the American Handicap with The Tin Man, and the Affirmed Handicap with Point Determined. Earlier this year, he won the Santa Anita Oaks with Balance, the Santa Monica Handicap with Behaving Badly, the Lone Star Derby with Wanna Runner, and three straight grass stakes at Santa Anita with Silver Cup. Espinoza also just missed scoring a major upset in the Hollywood Gold Cup with Ace Blue, who was nosed out by Lava Man.

As a result, Espinoza's mounts this year have earned $9,580,837 going into Wednesday, placing him third in the nation behind Garrett Gomez and Edgar Prado.

"This year I dedicated myself to working harder," Espinoza said. "The things you want, you can get, if you work hard. If someone wants me to work a horse, I'm there. I think positive with every horse I ride. As long as I'm in the race, I think I have a chance to win."

Espinoza is on pace to have his best year ever. His hallmark in recent years has been his consistency. This will be the fifth straight year that his horses have earned more than $10 million in purses. And he appears to be defying age, likely due to being a dedicated gym rat who works out five days a week. Though Espinoza stands just 5-foot-2, he has a powerful upper body that makes him one of the sport's strongest finishers.

"Physically he's gotten stronger over the years, and that is probably good for him mentally, too," said trainer Neil Drysdale, who uses Espinoza regularly. "He's also easy to work with. He has a pleasant demeanor."

Espinoza said he works out with a personal trainer every time he goes to Evolution Fitness, a gym in Arcadia, Calif., in which he is a minority owner.

"I like working with different people because the body gets used to doing things," he said. "I want to trick my body. I'm not trying to grow my muscle. I want to be lean and strong.

"I don't have a problem with my weight," added Espinoza, who weighs about 111 pounds. "But I do try to be careful about what I eat. As you get older, you have to do different things to maintain your weight. I don't have to worry about going to the hot box. I can't remember the last time I used it. It's been many years."

Espinoza, who is single, leads a bachelor's life. He eats out every night.

"I don't cook in my house," he said. "I don't know how to cook. I've never tried. I'm sure if I cooked, nobody would eat my food. The only thing that's in my refrigerator is water. I don't have any food in my house. I never take any leftovers home. I like Italian food. I just eat, and go home."

Once there, he goes for walks with his dogs, a pair of enormous Great Danes.

"I talk them for a walk. Actually, they take me for a walk," Espinoza said, laughing.

His routine is simple, and consistent. Espinoza begins his day by working horses at the track, then darts away to the gym for a quick personal workout before returning to the races.

"The workout at the gym clears my mind," Espinoza said. "When I come to the races, I'm fresh and ready to go."