06/05/2014 12:07PM

Victor Espinoza gets a second chance

Barbara D. Livingston
Victor Espinoza and California Chrome have been a team since last December.

The odds of getting a second chance to win the Triple Crown are long. You can count on one hand the riders who were granted a do-over. Victor Espinoza, who failed in 2002 with War Emblem and has returned for the attempt on California Chrome, knows this and is determined to make his second chance count.

“This is very different from then,” Espinoza said. “I’m different. The horse is different.”

The outcome, however, tends to be the same. Espinoza is one of 11 riders who have teetered on the brink of a Triple Crown without closing the deal since Steve Cauthen made his magic with Affirmed in 1978. He was asked if he recalled that day.

“I was 6,” Espinoza said. “I was working on my parents’ goat farm in Mexico.”

Okay, so he’s got an excuse. And now he’s got that second chance, a chance that was afforded Hall of Famer Milo Valenzuela, who rode Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam to victories in the 1958 Kentucky Derby and Preakness but was denied a Triple Crown when his colt went lame in the Belmont.

Ten years later, Valenzuela was back in the saddle for Calumet aboard Forward Pass, who was awarded the Derby win when Dancer’s Image flunked the post-race test. After Forward Pass won the subsequent Preakness by six lengths, racing held its collective breath. There appeared to be a very real possibility of a Triple Crown winner who would be saddled with a giant asterisk. History was spared, though, when Stage Door Johnny ran by Forward Pass in the final furlong to win the Belmont by 1 1/4 lengths. The third horse was a dozen lengths farther back.

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In 1964, Hall of Famer Bill Hartack rode Northern Dancer to a narrow win over Hill Rise in the Derby and then to a more conclusive victory over The Scoundrel in the Preakness. The Belmont, run that year at Aqueduct, drew what has turned out to be one of the deepest fields in the modern history of the race. Hill Rise went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap and later the title as England’s champion miler. The durable Roman Brother was 1965 Horse of the Year. Quadrangle, who beat Northern Dancer on the square in the Belmont, then added the 1964 Dwyer, Travers, and Lawrence Realization to his record.

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In 1969, Hartack was back with the unbeaten Majestic Prince, who was, as far as the outspoken rider was concerned, the most talented Thoroughbred he’d ever been aboard. Still, Majestic Prince had to survive tough, close races in the Derby and the Preakness against Arts and Letters. His trainer, Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden, was concerned about an emerging soft-tissue injury and wanted to skip the Belmont to give his colt a rest. But Longden was overruled by owner Frank McMahon, which left Hartack the job of making the best of a bad situation. Worried about his colt, Hartack babied Majestic Prince behind the Belmont’s slow pace set by Arts and Letters and could do no better than second, beaten 5 1/2 lengths.

Kent Desormeaux, another Hall of Famer, knows how Hartack must have felt, strapped aboard the best colt in the Belmont while surrounded by question marks.

In 1998, Desormeaux almost won the Triple Crown aboard Real Quiet, an honest colt who basically had only one horse to beat through the series – Victory Gallop – and came within a nose of getting the job done. In 2008, however, Big Brown was so far superior to the rest of the crop that nothing seemed to stand in the way of a Triple Crown.

But just as Majestic Prince came out of the Preakness less than 100 percent, Big Brown needed attention to a cracked hoof after Baltimore, which interrupted his training and lowered a cloud of doubt about his fitness to handle the Belmont challenge. In the race itself, Big Brown was effectively pinned to the inside by rival horses through the opening furlong, but Desormeaux had his colt in the clear by the time they rounded the first turn. From there, the Triple Crown seemed to be a foregone conclusion, until Big Brown spit the bit on the final turn and was eased to the wire by Desormeaux, dead last.

“There were no popped tires,” Desormeaux said, trying to allay fears that Big Brown had gone lame. “He was just out of gas.”

Espinoza spends his regular working days in a Santa Anita Park jockeys’ room that includes not only Desormeaux but also Gary Stevens, who just missed a Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997, and Mario Gutierrez, who was deprived of a Triple Crown chance when an injured I’ll Have Another was withdrawn from the 2012 Belmont Stakes.

“They can imagine how I feel, but I don’t even want to mention it to them,” Espinoza said. “Too painful. I mean, I was in that situation.”

Desormeaux was asked if he has imparted any advice to Espinoza. After all, Desormeaux came back to win the Belmont Stakes in 2009 aboard Summer Bird.

“The only thing I would tell him to do is get back to Belmont and ride there a few days before the race, and cut off all the extracurricular activities the day before,” Desormeaux said. “He told me he already planned to do both, so there’s nothing more to say. If his colt is good enough, he’ll win.”

Espinoza and California Chrome have been partners since December. Their easy relationship has been a key to the colt’s success. By contrast, he was aboard War Emblem for only the third time in the 2002 Belmont, after the Derby and the Preakness, and the fast black colt was hardly an armchair ride.

“That was the craziest horse I ever rode,” Espinoza said. “The first time I got on him in the Derby, it was like grabbing hold of a steel pole. He had no mouth, he was so strong. I tied my reins and gave him a little pull, and it was like, ‘What the hell is this?’”

A jockey riding a horse for the first time needs to be a quick study. In the Derby, this is happening in front of more than 100,000 people. On that May afternoon in 2002, Espinoza found himself aboard a Thoroughbred version of Megatron, a single-minded warrior with only one gear and the pedal stuck to the floorboard.

“As soon as the groom turned him loose on the track that day, he wanted to attack the pony,” Espinoza said. “By the time I got to the gate, both my arms were tired. Then, as soon as he went into the gate, he sat back, then went sideways, then forward, then back again.

“After a while, I gave up,” he said. “I just took a long cross and held the mane, and however he breaks, I just hope I’m still on him. Believe me, I thought he was going straight to the ground when the gates opened.”

Miraculously, he did not. War Emblem took a tiny stutter step at the start and then was off.

“Like a cat,” Espinoza said. “And I was in front of everybody. I tried to slow him down, but I could never get to him. I thought at least when I got to the three-eighths, I thought then I could relax. But not him. He was pulling hard all the way to the stretch. When I finally turned him loose, it was the best feeling ever.”

The winning margin was four lengths.

In the Preakness, War Emblem broke well but was just as tough, pulling Espinoza through a fast opening half before winning by three-quarters of a length. The colt was brilliant but clearly one-dimensional, which gave 10 opponents hope that War Emblem might do something to beat himself in the Belmont Stakes.

And he did, stumbling badly when the gates popped.

“I still can’t believe I didn’t come off,” Espinoza said.

So ended the dream of a Triple Crown in the blink of an eye. War Emblem tried to get back into the race but eventually faded to eighth.

“I was very sad, especially for the prince,” Espinoza said, referring to Saudi royal Ahmed Salman, who bought War Emblem barely a month before the Derby on the recommendation of Bob Baffert. “But I never blamed myself.

“At that time, everything was new for me,” said Espinoza, who had just turned 30. “The Triple Crown gave me a chance to do things I never thought I would do. It was all very cool, a lot of fun, but I probably did too much. It was my moment.”

In the wake of the 2002 Belmont, Espinoza missed out on endorsement deals and promotional opportunities. This time around, his approach is more circumspect, although he doesn’t mind the attention California Chrome has attracted.

“Now, I’m a little older,” he said. “I know what I enjoy doing, and I don’t need to do too much. The day before and the morning of the race, I want everything to be as quiet as possible, to concentrate on my job.

“If I lose, everything goes away anyway,” Espinoza added with a shrug. “Back to reality. But if we win, that’s a different story.”