12/10/2003 12:00AM

Near-miss for Espinoza

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HONG KONG - Victor Espinoza was denied the International Jockeys Championship by a mere nose at Happy Valley on Wednesday night despite riding the 35-1 highweight Classa Win to victory in the third and final leg of the series.

Despite Espinoza's late charge on Classic Win, a two-length winner of the one-mile and 55-yard handicap, he couldn't quite overtake defending champ Damien Oliver, whose mount Kindred Spirits lasted for fifth by a nose over the fast-closing Indubitably Bliss. The two points Oliver garnered for that effort gave him the title over Espinoza by a score of 20-19.

It was still a moral victory for Espinoza in his first time riding on the tricky two-turn, seven-furlong track with its abbreviated 250-yard stretch.

Oliver's victory aboard Ace Academy in the first leg of the competition, in which Espinoza finished third on Flying Kenny, had enabled him to take a 12-4 lead. Espinoza fell another three points behind in the second leg when he rode the 18-1 Fantastic Win, a substitute for the scratched Saluzi, to finish fourth in a 1 1/8-mile handicap in which Oliver, an Australian based in Hong Kong, was second on Zerubbabel.

Espinoza, who had six rides on the seven-race card, took his loss philosophically, knowing full well that he has bigger fish to fry with Sarafan in the Hong Kong Mile on Sunday.

"It would have been nice to have been able to ride here before tonight, but that's the way it goes," he said. "This has been a great experience."

Not so great for Frankie Dettori, however. Dettori, who is scheduled to ride the strongly favored Falbrav in the Hong Kong Cup on Sunday, sustained a slightly sprained ankle when he fell from Champion Speed in the first leg of the International Jockeys Championship. Wheeled off the track on a stretcher, Dettori was taken by ambulance to the hospital and had to take off the remainder of his Happy Valley mounts. He is, however, expected to fulfill his riding engagements at Sha Tin on Sunday.