“I'm Ready for It”: Espinoza Gets 2nd Chance at Triple Crown

Victor Espinoza needed only to win the Belmont on War Emblem in 2002 to secure the sport's first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. But his horse stumbled to his knees at the start and never recovered

After falling one race short of the Triple Crown 12 years ago, Victor Espinoza figured he had missed his chance at horse racing history.

Then he got aboard California Chrome.

After winning the Kentucky Derby on May 3 and then guiding the chestnut colt to victory in the Preakness on May 17, Espinoza, 42, will get another opportunity to close out a Triple Crown on June 7 in the Belmont.

"I'm ready for it," the former bus driver in New Mexico, said Saturday evening.

Espinoza needed only to win the Belmont on War Emblem in 2002 to secure the sport's first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. But his horse stumbled to his knees at the start and never recovered.

Espinoza was devastated. Affirmed is still the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and it's up to Espinoza to add California Chrome's name to the list.

"In a million years I didn't think I was going to have a second chance," Espinoza said. "I was very close once. Life goes on. But after a decade, here we go. I'm here again."

Older, wiser and maybe — just maybe — with a better horse than last time.

Espinoza wanted to keep California Chrome off the pace for much of the race, but circumstances dictated that he make his charge to the front earlier than planned. Fortunately, the horse was up to the task.

"I had to start moving at the half-mile pole, which is tough for a horse to start moving early and keep going all the way to the end. Today, California Chrome proved he can move," Espinoza said after the race.

It was the sixth straight win for California Chrome. Someone asked what the No. 1 ingredient was for the streak.

"I think the way I ride him," Espinoza said.

"I'll drink to that," trainer Art Sherman added.

Reflecting on the race while back on his home turf in Santa Anita Park in California this week, Espinoza told NBC 4 that the Preakness was the hardest race he's run in his entire 25-year career.

"The number three... I really didn't like that post at three," he said, referring to Chrome's position at Pimlico Saturday. "For California Chrome, I would've liked better to be on the outside, but when I saw the three and all the speed that was outside of me, it was very tough."

Espinoza is credited with controlling the horse into a weaving route to get to the outside.

"I didn't want to burn him early, but I also wanted to let him run when it was time to go," he said, adding that the mental stress far outweighed his physical stress.

"I was just waiting for that moment to just turn the reins loose and let it go," Espinoza said. "I have confidence in California Chrome. When I turn him loose, he drops to the ground and he opens up."

Espinoza insists he learned a lot from his experience with War Emblem, and those lessons will be valuable this time around.

"The first time I was there, there were some things I was not ready for," he said. "Some things that I did I shouldn't have done, and some things that I had done that I'm just glad I did. But now I have a second chance, so I probably will enjoy myself a little better and go day by day. Because as long as California Chrome comes out good and is ready for the next step, I'll be ready, too."

So, can Espinoza and California Chrome win one more time?

"You have to have a very good horse to win these three races," Sherman said, "and I'm hoping I've got one right now."

He's got a pretty good jockey, too. Espinoza is up for the task, and he can only hope to get that same enthusiasm from his horse.

"It's not easy," said Espinoza, who donates 10 percent of his wins to the City of Hope cancer research hospital. "If it was easy, a lot of horses would have won the Triple Crown, you know? It has to be a super horse to win that. They lose so much energy. Hopefully, California Chrome comes back good, and hopefully he is the one who can do it."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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