06/05/2002 11:00PM

Fit horse, fit rider: Gym pays off for Espinoza

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Most of the people who exercise at Evolution Fitness in Pasadena, Calif., on weekday mornings do not make a fuss over the small man working with weights next to them.

Jockey Victor Espinoza, who will shoot for the Triple Crown aboard War Emblem in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, is content for things to stay that way. Espinoza would prefer that the other 1,200 members not know that he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes this year, or that is a part-owner of the fitness center.

"It's something that I like to do and it's good for me," Espinoza said earlier this week at Hollywood Park. "I always try to stay in shape. If I don't exercise and I come to ride, I don't feel 100 percent ready to ride the horses."

Espinoza's conditioning could be a factor Saturday when he rides War Emblem, who has a reputation for being a difficult mount. He is among the leading riders on the competitive Southern California circuit, and he credits the conditioning for giving him added confidence as well as strength.

Espinoza, 30, has used weight training as part of his exercise routine since his days as an apprentice jockey in northern California. He works out at the gym at least six days a week. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, he works with weights. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he does kickboxing exercises under the direction of a coach. Sometimes, he changes fitness trainers to vary the routine.

"Victor has gone through every trainer here," said Clark Bevans, who is the managing partner of the gym. "He's made the rounds. I had him for a few months."

Espinoza stands 5-foot, 2-inches and tacks 111 pounds. Even for a jockey, he is small, which allows him to work more extensively with weights. Larger riders do not have that luxury and spend time jogging, reducing in the sweat box, or purging to keep their weight down.

With weightlifting, Espinoza said he tends toward repetition more than large amounts of weight.

"Once every two weeks, I do as much as I can and the rest of the time I just do light weights," he said. "It helps me to stay stronger. When I get on the horse, I never get tired. I work out on my legs because that's what I need.

"You have to learn how to lift weights. I have a trainer that taught me how to do it. I don't need a trainer, but I need someone to push me."

On a typical morning, Espinoza will spend time at the racetrack working horses, head to the gym for a few hours and then go to the jockeys' room for an afternoon at the races.

"It's not enough for me to just work three or four horses in the morning," he said. "Working horses is more for getting the clock good in your mind."

Two years ago as an investment, Espinoza became a partner in Evolution Fitness, which is jointly owned by Richard Mulhall, the racing manager for Thoroughbred Corp., which owns War Emblem; and Bevans.

For Espinoza, it was a worthwhile buy. He was spending enough time there anyway to feel as if he owned the place.

"He is in here three hours a day," Bevans said. "He works his tail off. He really deserves what he gets.

"People go about their business and Victor goes about his business. Richard Mulhall gets bothered more than Victor does. People want to know what Richard thinks about the horses."

Espinoza declines to say how much he paid for his ownership share, but is happy with his investment. "It was quite a bit," he said.

The bottom line, he said, is that he feels better when he has regular workouts.

"I get used to the exercise," he said. "I feel more loose and strong and can dominate the horses. If I don't exercise, I don't like the way I look on horses."

Lately, Espinoza, has looked brilliant on horseback. On Saturday, the fitness routine could help him make racing history.