08/13/2006 11:00PM

On the loose, and hard to stop

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Pity poor Victor Espinoza. To hear him tell it, at least to the ears of this slothful scribe, it sounds as if he lives the life of a Trappist monk. He is up with the dawn for morning labors, followed by a ritual scourging of the temporal body. Then comes the afternoon public ceremonies that require an intense combination of physical bravery and intellectual discipline. After that, all that's left is evening vespers, water and a biscuit, and bedtime on a wooden pallet.

"The jockey's life is not an easy life, if you do it right," Espinoza insists.

Who's to argue with success? The above description is a slight exaggeration, especially since Espinoza has an established fondness for fast cars and sharp duds, and lives in a stylish hillside abode. But he enjoys such things in passing. Right now they are mere doodads dangling from a life committed full time to the business of riding Thoroughbreds. And given the heights to which Espinoza has been taking his profession lately, his approach has been working wonders.

Espinoza's front-running ice sculpture aboard The Tin Man in last Saturday's Arlington Million was but the latest in a season-long display of outstanding high-stakes performances. He took the Hollywood Park title in head-to-head competition with Patrick Valenzuela, and now he is the runaway leader of the Del Mar meet, with apprentice Martin Garcia giving distant chase.

As the week began, Espinoza was a solid second behind Eastern emigre Garrett Gomez in the national purse rankings, and only about half a million bucks behind. This in itself is a rare feat these days for a California-based rider. Seven of the eight immediately trailing Espinoza in the standings are out of the East. Gomez, who began 2006 in California, ascended to the top on the wings of his Todd Pletcher connection, along with ready access to any number of New York stables that blanket the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic with stakes runners. On the other hand, a short commute for a West Coast rider will take him only as far as Turf Paradise, or the Santa Rosa fair.

Espinoza didn't need to go far this year to find The Tin Man, better known as the latest geriatric miracle performed by Richard Mandella. When Mandella brought the old horse back in an allowance race Dec. 28 at Santa Anita for his first start in more than 14 months, regular rider Mike Smith had relocated to Florida, and Alex Solis, the stable's prime jock, was committed to another mount.

"I looked in the Form that day and saw he was 8 years old," Espinoza said Monday morning after training hours. "Then when I got on him, he started bucking and playing like he was a kid. I stopped worrying about his age."

Together, Espinoza and The Tin Man took that comeback race, won the San Marcos Handicap, and then finished a gallant second to English star David Junior in the Dubai Duty Free. None the worse for wear, The Tin Man returned this summer to win the American Handicap at Hollywood Park before setting his sights on the Million.

"In big races like that, you've got to have more than one plan," Espinoza said of the Million, echoing the wisdom of such top money riders as Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey. "So I can't say I expected to be on that easy lead, but I didn't complain. Someone asked me if I was surprised all those top riders let me go so slow. I said, 'Which top riders are you talking about?' "

Espinoza let that last crack fly with a "just kidding" laugh and a flash of his killer smile. At 34, Espinoza is not yet what you would call a leader of the local jockey colony - except in purse money - but he is respected for his dedication, and his daily regimen in the gym sets him apart as a naturally small rider who can afford to add muscle weight.

"I think it helps to keep from getting hurt," Espinoza said, rapping a wooden bench just in case. "If you can make your muscles hard, if you fall you might have a better chance to bounce.

"Being as strong as possible also helps with my reactions and clears my mind," he said. "You know anything can happen on a horse, and it can happen fast. It's good to know your body will be there to react if you need it. I took a break from the gym for a week once as an apprentice. Never again. I felt so weak, and the wire always seemed so far away."

Espinoza will get a chance to close ground on Gomez for the national lead this weekend, when he rides Preachinatthebar against Lava Man, Giacomo, Good Reward, and Perfect Drift in the $1 million Pacific Classic. In his last start (without Espinoza), Preachinatthebar led for all but the last couple of jumps of Del Mar's San Diego Handicap, losing to Giacomo by a head. Does Espinoza think there could be another wire-to-wire thriller in store Sunday?

"You can't even start to think about that until they draw the race," Espinoza said. "You need to see where the other speed has drawn. It was that way in the Million, and it was that way with War Emblem in the Derby."

The 2002 Kentucky Derby, that is, won by Espinoza and War Emblem, leading all the way.