California Chrome just wasn’t the same, jockey Victor Espinoza said. But for Espinoza, the Belmont Stakes looked very, very familiar.
The jockey’s second bid to complete the Triple Crown suffered a similar fate to his first back in 2002, a setback at the beginning of the one-and-a-half mile event known as “The Test of the Champion.”
“I noticed something, as soon as [California Chrome] come out of the gate,” Espinoza, 42, said. “He was empty today.”
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion finished in a dead-heat for fourth behind 9-1 long-shot winner Tonalist on Saturday.
Chrome became the 13th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown but not the Belmont since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in 1978. The now-37-year drought is the longest span between Triple Crown winners ever.
It’s doubly disappointing for Espinoza, who is the second jockey in that stretch to miss on two chances, joining Kent Desormeaux. In 2002, Espinoza piloted War Emblem to the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown.
A stumble by the horse out of the gate denied Espinoza then. The jockey was not blamed for War Emblem’s eighth-place finish.
This time, Espinoza sensed an immediate problem, one not nearly as apparent as a stumble, to some 100,000 spectators at Belmont Park.
California Chrome was tired. Espinoza was again powerless.
“After a half-mile, he was pretty much done,” Espinoza said. “Turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat down the lane.”
Espinoza made no mention of a possible injury to the colt out of the gate, as trainer Art Sherman reportedly said in a separate interview. Chrome stayed in the top five for most of the two-and-a-half-minute race, the longest of the Triple Crown.
The sweaty, sun-baked crowd briefly crescendoed as Chrome made a brief surge into third place near the one-mile mark, but he had nothing in reserve despite left-handed whipping down the stretch.
“[Chrome] kind of got a little bit intimidated, which he’s never done that before,” Espinoza said. “That was the first time.”
Espinoza wavered in several short spurts of interviews in the half-hour after dismounting.
Was he disappointed?
No. … Yes and no.
Is it tough to miss history for a second time?
It’s not easy. … I’ll be all right.
He won’t be the same. Espinoza was a 5-foot-2, 112-pound king of New York this week. He threw out the first pitch at a Yankees game, was recognized at a Midtown Manhattan gym and held court on a Rockefeller Center rooftop garden in a New York Rangers size small Mats Zuccarello jersey (No. 36, for the drought).
He’s said that if he didn’t win the Belmont, he’d be forgotten, just like in 2002. Espinoza’s fame began to fade as dusk fell at Belmont on Saturday.
On his way off the track, he heard shouts of, “We love you, Victor,” and “You’re still a winner” while receiving a standing ovation. They felt like goodbyes. All week, people were in the ear of this man, a former bus driver and one of 12 children raised on a farm outside Mexico City.
“Everybody’s trying to ride the race,” said Espinoza, whose been riding for more than two decades with more than 3,100 wins. “That’s the problem.”
He hurriedly escaped their view and shuffled down 22 stairs to a basement, flashed by a flat screen showing a replay of the race (and didn’t flinch) and into a press conference. He smiled and chuckled and answered in English and Spanish, nearly kissing the microphone in front of him. Another screen showing replays played behind him.
“I’ve been a second time,” he said, alluding to 2002 but never mentioning War Emblem by name. “I haven’t had the right horse.”
The q-and-a finished, and he paced toward the basement jockeys’ room, where a bevy options would await – a couch, a pool table, a Coke machine.
First, one man stopped him for a selfie. Espinoza, his face layered in sweat and specks of gray dirt, also posed with New York Jets linebacker Quinton Coples, who is 15 inches taller, for a more traditional photo.
Espinoza finally trotted into an area where he couldn’t be bothered, about 30 minutes after the race. He stopped a few feet shy of the jockeys’ room, lifted his head and stared at another TV. This replay, he didn’t turn away from.
It ended. Satisfied (or not), he shifted to his left, removed his purple-and-green jacket and marched out of view.