05/29/2002 11:00PM

Laid-back Espinoza remains all smiles

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Jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert have combined to propel War Emblem to the threshold of joining the all-time greats, and now each says they would not want the pressure placed on the other.

With a horse going for the Triple Crown, "There's a lot of pressure put on a jockey," Baffert said Thursday. "I wouldn't want to be on his back," added Baffert, who rode briefly before turning to training.

Espinoza, however, says he has the easy part in the June 8 Belmont. "I'm not nervous. I'd be more nervous riding a horse for $10,000," Espinoza said in a conference call. "For me, this is fun. I don't worry about anything. I'm the rider. I'm used to that. I don't want to be in Bob's situation, having the responsibility of getting him ready for the next race. He doesn't want the jockey pressure. I don't want to have the training pressure."

Espinoza, as usual, said all this in his usual light-hearted manner. The easygoing way in which he conducts himself - always, seemingly, with a smile on his face - has helped get him through the Triple Crown grind to this point. The pressure is certain to get ratcheted up several notches over the next week, but Baffert believes Espinoza has matured to the point where he will not get rattled on War Emblem.

"Victor's riding with a lot of confidence," Baffert said. "He's such a poised rider. Victor's convinced himself he's as good as Jerry Bailey. He's listening to me. I've got him hypnotized. I've told him if you've got the best horse, just keep him out of trouble. He finally got to a level where he's just riding his own horse."

Baffert always has had a paternalistic attitude toward Espinoza. Because Baffert speaks fluent Spanish, he can easily converse with Espinoza, whose English vocabulary is good, but not expansive. Following the Preakness, Baffert repeatedly interrupted Espinoza during a press conference when questions were directed at Espinoza. Baffert said later he was looking out for Espinoza, though Espinoza has proven to be an agreeable interview subject when left to his own account.

Baffert's personal relationship with Espinoza mirrors their professional relationship. Espinoza was the regular rider last year for Congaree, but after his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, he was replaced. Nick Zito seized Espinoza for A P Valentine, and Espinoza rode A P Valentine to second-place finishes in the Preakness and Belmont, beating Congaree in the Preakness.

Last fall, Espinoza lost the mount on Baffert-trained Officer after he suffered his first career defeat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Espinoza won with just 1 of 28 mounts last fall at Belmont Park, his lone win coming with Officer in the Champagne Stakes, and he was severely criticized by trainer D. Wayne Lukas following the Breeders' Cup Distaff, with Lukas believing Espinoza had moved too soon on Spain.

This year, before the Derby, Baffert tried to get both Bailey and Pat Day to ride War Emblem before settling on Espinoza. But after following Baffert's instructions to the letter in both the Derby and Preakness, Baffert says he has seen a difference in Espinoza.

"This kid is becoming very poised," Baffert said immediately following the Preakness. "Victor Espinoza has arrived on the scene."

In other Belmont developments Thursday:

* War Emblem walked at Churchill Downs, one day after his five-furlong workout.

* Like a Hero, winner of the Alydar Stakes at Hollywood Park, and Sarava, the Sir Barton winner, settled in to their new surroundings, two stalls apart in Belmont Park's Barn 1. Both horses arrived in New York late Wednesday afternoon. Like a Hero jogged once around Belmont's 1 1/2-mile oval under exercise rider Andy Durnin.

* With jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. opting not to travel to ride Like a Hero in the Belmont, Pat Day has picked up the mount.

* Sarava simply walked the shed on his first day in New York. He worked four furlongs in 49.20 seconds at Churchill on Wednesday before traveling.

- additional reporting by Brad Free and David Grening