09/04/2014 2:53PM

Hovdey: Espinoza has another shiny prospect

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Victor Espinoza guides American Pharoah to a 4 3/4-length victory in the Del Mar Futurity.

Victor Espinoza was sitting quietly aboard 2-year-old Visitation in the Del Mar gate last Wednesday afternoon, awaiting the start of the Oak Tree Juvenile Turf, when Increase, in the next stall, reared, twisted, and began to flail after launching his rider, Fernando Perez, out the back.

These things happen, but at Del Mar this summer, the extreme turned into the routine. There was an early-season spike in equine fatalities, injuries to veteran riders Stewart Elliott and Brice Blanc, a new turf course closed twice for softening and rocks collected daily from a degrading Polytrack sub-base. By the time the dust had settled for the Juvenile Turf, two horses in the field had run loose, three starters were scratched, including Visitation, and Espinoza had to hoof it back to the jockeys’ room along the outside rail of the stretch.

“Nobody saw it, but I was pretty sure my horse got hit somewhere on his hip by the horse that flipped, so I had them take a look,” Espinoza said later. “There was no need to take any chances.”

Of course Espinoza meant to say there was no need to take any chances above and beyond the routine roll of the dice that comes with every ride in every race. Back at the Paddy Gallagher barn, Visitation appeared to be okay, Espinoza sat out the race, and then an hour later guided American Pharoah to a resounding victory in the $300,000 Del Mar Futurity in their first collaboration.

One year ago, on Del Mar’s closing day, Espinoza found himself without a Futurity mount and free to head back to L.A. But he lingered to watch the race, because there was a colt in the field named California Chrome that he’d been following with interest since a maiden win at Hollywood Park. The colt had a troubled trip in the Futurity and still finished a close sixth, which impressed Espinoza even more. Three and a half months later the mount was his.

“Last year I’m watching the race, and this year I win it,” Espinoza said in the jocks’ room at the end of closing day. “I don’t know what that means. It turned out okay watching last year, didn’t it? And now this colt, big and fast, he could be anything.”

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In fact, American Pharoah was a maiden with one start going into the Futurity, part of the plentiful 2-year-old crop peeled off by the Bob Baffert stable each season. If there is a better one than American Pharoah, though, look out. Riding to Baffert’s instructions, Espinoza seized the track from the start and was looking for more at the end of the 7 furlongs.

“He broke a little slow,” Espinoza noted. “But it didn’t take him long to get going, and he felt very strong. I know he was a maiden, but he would not have been in a Grade 1 race unless there was a good reason. That’s why Baffert wins so many races like this.”

American Pharoah, a son of Pioneerof the Nile bred and owned by the Zayat Stables, is a big, handsome bay with a lot of body and half a tail. His win gave Baffert an even dozen Del Mar Futurities, dating back to Silver Charm in 1996. The trainer had already decamped to Santa Anita, leaving assistant Jim Barnes to do the honors at Del Mar.

“We took the blinkers off him because he was getting a little stirred up, and he already had plenty of speed,” Barnes said. “Then we added earplugs for today.”

And the tail?

“I don’t know what happened there,” Barnes replied. “That’s the way he came to us. He’ll swat at a fly and come up short, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference in the way he runs.”

Espinoza’s Futurity win came hard on the heels of his no-prisoners ride aboard favored Sunset Glow to take the Del Mar Debutante the previous weekend, when splitting rivals in the upper stretch made the difference in a narrow win. The rider can be forgiven, however, if his thoughts stray from a budding association with such promising 2-year-olds to California Chrome, whose Kentucky Derby and Preakness heroics last spring helped make Espinoza America’s best-known jockey, at least for now.

On Saturday, between races at Los Alamitos, Espinoza will be aboard California Chrome in a public workout designed to move the colt closer to dead fit for his engagement in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20, his first start since finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes. After working California Chrome twice in the last two weeks, Espinoza will be looking for that old feeling.

“It’s very hard to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby and have him run his race,” Espinoza said. “The shape he was in after he won the Santa Anita Derby, I thought nobody could beat him. But then to go through the Triple Crown like he did is even tougher.

“Now he’s got to get back to that again,” he went on. “In their mind they know they’re back at their job. But the most important thing is their body, especially with a big horse like California Chrome. They need to get their muscles back from the time off.

“I will ask him for a little more on Saturday, but I won’t push him, because he needs to tell us where he is,” Espinoza added. “All I know is when he’s a hundred percent, he’s an amazing horse.”