- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

ARCADIA, Calif. — Victor Espinoza is oozing confidence a year after his hopes of riding a Triple Crown winner were dashed in the Belmont Stakes.

He is back with a record third chance at a Triple Crown try, this time aboard American Pharoah, a colt many believe is poised to become the first to pull off the feat since Affirmed in 1978.

“If he’s 100 percent and he goes there and his energy is good, that’s all it’s going to take,” Espinoza said on a recent morning at Santa Anita Park. “I’m positive and confident.”

Espinoza’s assurance stems from how American Pharoah has developed over the five-week Triple Crown campaign.

The colt rallied for a one-length victory in the Kentucky Derby and romped in the rain to a seven-length win in the Preakness Stakes. He has a solid pedigree — his grand-sire Empire Maker won the 2003 Belmont to spoil Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid — and Espinoza, along with everyone else, is impressed by the colt’s stride in which he nearly floats over the ground.

American Pharoah has left Espinoza with none of the questions he had about humbly bred California Chrome, whose bid ended with a fourth-place finish in the Belmont last June.

Or ornery War Emblem, a one-dimensional front-runner Espinoza first met on the morning of the 2002 Kentucky Derby. They teamed to win that day and at the Preakness Stakes, but the Bob Baffert-trained colt stumbled out of the starting gate in the Belmont Stakes and finished eighth.

By comparison, Espinoza has cultivated a solid relationship with good-natured and versatile American Pharoah, who he’s ridden since last September. Together, they have won six races. Espinoza took over from Martin Garcia after the colt lost his first career race at Del Mar, although Garcia still exercises the colt in the mornings.

“Pharoah is just like pushing buttons; you just can do whatever you want,” Garcia said. “He’s a really talented horse.”

Twice American Pharoah has won on wet tracks, including at the Preakness Stakes, where a deluge occurred just before the race began. Saturday’s forecast calls for rain, which could turn Belmont Park’s dirt into a creamy goo resembling peanut butter.

American Pharoah’s ability to come from behind, as he did in the Kentucky Derby, or run on or near the lead gives Espinoza options in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, the longest and most grueling of the Triple Crown races.

“Since the [first] day I rode him, I had the confidence in him and I thought he was special,” Espinoza said. “His talent, the way he runs and the way he hits the ground, the way he’s all forward. He’s not intimidated by nothing.”

Neither is the 5-foot-2 jockey, who turned 43 after the Preakness Stakes.

Espinoza is one of just six jockeys to win consecutive Kentucky Derbies, and he’s among seven riders to have won it three times. He has three Preakness victories, but has yet to win the Belmont in four previous tries. His best finish was second in 2001 with A P Valentine.

He is responsible for two of the biggest upsets in Breeders’ Cup history. Last year, he won the Juvenile Fillies aboard 61-1 shot Take Charge Brandi for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and the 2000 Distaff on Spain at 55-1 odds.

Between Triple Crown races, Espinoza has stuck to his routine. He rides Thursdays through Sundays at Santa Anita, where he’s winning at a 22 percent clip, third-highest among the track’s jockeys.

He ranks second nationally in purse earnings this year with $7.01 million. Jockeys earn 10 percent of the purse, meaning he’s made over $700,000 so far.

Espinoza has spread the wealth, too, donating a portion of his purse earnings to City of Hope in Duarte, California, a leading cancer research and treatment center. He’s visited children there and come away inspired.

“It’s not easy to go there, very difficult to see the kids like that,” he said. “You’d be amazed at how they’re happy. They never have an attitude.”

Espinoza, who is single, grew up one of 12 kids on a farm outside Mexico City, where he once negotiated the capital’s famous snarled traffic as a bus driver.

He took riding lessons after high school and attended a jockey’s school in Mexico. He rode his first winner at Mexico City’s Hippodromo de las Americas in 1992. The following year, he immigrated to Northern California, where he was the leading apprentice rider at Bay Meadows and then Golden Gate Fields.

Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles, where his career took off in 2000.
In 2001, Baffert didn’t think Espinoza did his job, finishing third in his first Kentucky Derby aboard Congaree. The trainer believed Espinoza had moved too soon in the race and replaced him. They have had other differences over the years, but both have maintained short memories about the conflicts.

“He has confidence in me to do the right thing and get it done,” Espinoza said. “We’ve always been good together. Sometimes we have to leave it alone for a minute, then come back together and go forward.”

Espinoza appeared on the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s ballot for the first time this year, but didn’t get in.

Victor is a better rider now than he was 10 years ago,” Baffert said. “When you’re younger, there’s a lot of pressure on you when you ride for a big barn. Now he’s like Gary Stevens, Mike Smith. When they’re on a good horse, they’re going to get you there.”

Espinoza laughs when he hears that Baffert thinks he’s improved.

“I hope so,” he said. “I’m here to learn something new.”

And perhaps ride horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

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