Espinoza standing tall in face of Triple Crown pressure - NBC Sports

Espinoza standing tall in face of Triple Crown pressure
June 3, 2014, 9:00 pm

NEW YORK -- Never has jockey Victor Espinoza stood this tall. He squinted beneath the midday sun atop a seven-story-high rooftop garden in Midtown Manhattan on Tuesday.

Peer below, and he could see Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A few steps away, he could lock eyes with one of his horse’s owners, unmistakable with a cowboy hat, beer bottle and flip phone.

Espinoza was fresh off throwing the first pitch at the Yankees game Monday night. He appeared on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday morning and was recognized during a two-hour workout at Equinox gym thereafter.

On the rooftop, he had just been handed and put on a blue New York Rangers jersey -- Mats Zuccarello’s No. 36 -- a size small that weighed him down.

Espinoza, who barely breaches 5 feet tall, is the towering human figure going into Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

He is the man charged with breaking horse racing’s 36-year Triple Crown drought (hence the No. 36 hockey shirt). He will ride Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome for the seventh time Saturday, looking for his seventh straight win aboard the 3-year-old colt.

[MORE: How and where to watch the 2014 Belmont Stakes]

Is this the right jockey-horse combination for history? Does he feel the pressure yet?

“Not right now,” Espinoza said, “but I’m sure I will get there later.”

He would know. This is Espinoza’s second attempt to become the 11th jockey to win a Triple Crown (Eddie Arcaro did so twice). He failed – perhaps that’s not the right verb, since it was through no fault of his own – with War Emblem at the 2002 Belmont Stakes.

Espinoza experienced the hoopla and media tours accompanying a Triple Crown bid 12 years ago. He said that whirlwind will benefit him in the 1 1/2-mile spectacle Saturday evening, the longest of the three jewels of horse racing.

He regrets how he handled the pre-race requests for his time in 2002.

“Before I went to some shows and was forcing myself to do it,” Espinoza said. “Wherever they tell me to go, I’ll go. After I’m done, it’s like, oh, I shouldn’t have done that.”

He seems plenty busy this week. Next up is David Letterman on Wednesday, an appointment he had to confirm with two men standing at his side at the rooftop garden. But his demeanor is different.

“Now, I will go because I love those shows, and I want to see them,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza, 42, is one of 12 children raised on a farm outside Mexico City. He grew up scared of horses, yet fearless enough to drive buses to get by at age 15.

“Like everybody else, before 21, get a fake ID,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza entered jockey school in his teens and has won more than 3,100 times since 1993 (but with a dubious record at Belmont Park, 2 for 67, according to the New York Daily News).

After California Chrome won two of his first six races on a different jockey, venerable trainer Art Sherman sought a change and called Espinoza, a man he had met nearly two decades before. California Chrome is six-for-six with Espinoza in the irons.

“Victor rode a lot of winners for me when he was just starting,” said Sherman, 77, who became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby on May 3. “I have a lot of confidence in him. Very good rider. Strong, finishes good. Got a head on his shoulders. Believe me, he’ll ride this horse to perfection.”

Sherman said he doesn’t remember Espinoza’s 2002 Belmont Stakes, when perfection disappeared two steps out of the gate for Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem.

The front-running colt immediately stumbled, so badly that Espinoza thought War Emblem would fall down, and collided with Magic Weisner before bouncing up.

“I was just lucky to stay on,” Espinoza said Tuesday. “At that point, I lost my chance. I know that it was out of my hands, and that’s it. The Triple Crown is gone.”

Espinoza took War Emblem to the lead after one mile, but he disappeared down the stretch. War Emblem was eighth, 19 1/2 lengths behind 70-1 Sarava, which became the biggest longshot to win the Belmont.

Espinoza said he doesn’t think about that defeat anymore. He focuses on other races at Belmont Park this week, to study how other horses are winning from the front and from behind. He believes California Chrome could do it either way, unlike the inflexible War Emblem.

“I hope I make the right decisions,” Espinoza said. “Because one wrong mistake, one wrong decision in the race, that’s going to cost you.”

[MORE: California Chrome's unlikely story impossible to repeat]

It all went right at the Kentucky Derby, when Espinoza and Chrome won by 1 3/4 lengths in the slowest winning time since 2010 with little to no tactical roadblocks. The Preakness victory came by 1 1/2 lengths, the fastest winning time since 2008, but without the second-through-sixth-place finishers from the Derby in the field.

That made Chrome the 13th horse to win the first two legs since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, but without the challenge of a rival like Alydar.

How much of the success in May was due to Espinoza?

“I rode a lot of good horses and won a lot of big races. Many of them, you could have ridden,” said NBC analyst Jerry Bailey, a two-time Belmont winner. “You don’t mess it up [as a jockey]. I think, in this particular case, Victor gets along well with this horse. Not only because he’s undefeated on him, but the horse has a few peculiarities that Victor seems to be able to blend with him in that regard [such as Chrome rocking his head side to side in the starting gate, which could cause a slow start]. … You can’t argue with success, and he’s certainly been successful on this horse.”

Espinoza jokes that he and Chrome are in sync. They share a calm, curious attitude. One of Chrome’s owners has already predicted victory and famed trainer Bob Baffert dubbed the horse “a stud.” Espinoza held a plate with a stuffed tortilla and talked confidently in his own right Tuesday, standing tall five days before the Belmont Stakes.

“When that gate opens, everything’s going to change,” Espinoza said. “And I’m ready for it.”