It's been more than a dozen years since Victor Espinoza won his only Kentucky Derby, and more than a half a century since a California-bred won the Run for the Roses.
Espinoza and his No. 1 Derby prospect, California Chrome, could end those voids if the fates allow come May 3, when the 140th Derby unfolds at Churchill Downs.
As always in horse racing, however, it's first things first, and next up for Espinoza and California Chrome is a major test against open company in Santa Anita's Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe on March 8, a race worth 50 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.
Since he has been beating up on state-breds in his last two races, presently, California Chrome has zero points, and trainer Art Sherman is acutely aware of that deficiency.
"He's getting better," Espinoza said of the chestnut colt, who would become the first Cal-bred to win the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962. "His last two wins have given him so much more confidence."
Espinoza won the 2002 Kentucky Derby wire-to-wire on War Emblem for Bob Baffert and went on to guide that colt to victories in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational. He has ridden California Chrome in his last two scores -- the December 22 King Glorious by 6 1/4 lengths at Hollywood Park and the January 25 California Cup Derby at Santa Anita by 5 1/2 lengths.
The 41-year-old rider has also been working the chestnut son of Lucky Pulpit, who is campaigned by breeders Steven Coburn and Martin Perry. Espinoza worked California Chrome the past two Saturdays at the colt's Los Alamitos headquarters, most recently clocking six furlongs in 1:11 4/5, sans blinkers.
"When he goes to the track, he knows when he's going to work," Espinoza said. "It was a nice, steady work for him Saturday. He went without blinkers, and he's more settled without them. With blinkers on, he's more aggressive.
"He'll run with blinkers in the San Felipe," as he has in his last five starts.