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BELMONT STAKES SATURDAY, 2 P.M., CH. 4

Place in History Is Riding on It

Espinoza, a man of humble beginnings, is a victory away from the Triple Crown

June 05, 2002|VALERIE GUTIERREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He spent his boyhood on a farm outside Mexico City doing man's work with a child's hands, and never thought anything of it because, as one of 12 children, that's what you did. The animals were fed by sunrise, and by 8 p.m. all the children were asleep, or at least they should have been, even if they were cold or hungry, which many times they were.

He was nurtured by these humble surroundings and a close-knit family, but the ranch that had been in his family for generations couldn't hold on to the restless boy. He had heard stories about people making a name for themselves in the city, and wanted a story of his own.

A decade after he started racing horses--first on a whim, and then, as a way to make a living--Victor Espinoza, 30, will get that chance Saturday when he rides War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes for a shot at the first Triple Crown sweep in 24 years.

Until then, Espinoza will not allow himself to stray from the highly-disciplined lifestyle that he learned as a child, and used to become one of Southern California's top jockeys.

He still rises at sunrise--to train at the gym he owns in Pasadena--before driving to the track to work out horses. Even after riding War Emblem to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Espinoza has maintained a full racing schedule at Hollywood Park. The 5-foot-2 jockey pauses just long enough to eat his one meal of the day--he must keep his weight below 110 pounds--and falls into bed exhausted each night by 9.

"It's a long day, and the schedule lasts all year," Espinoza said. "It wears you down, but you get used to it."

The Triple Crown is a uniquely difficult challenge, with horses expected to run at three different distances, on three different tracks, within a span of six weeks. The last jockey to win the Triple Crown was Steve Cauthen, who guided Affirmed in 1978. Since then, only seven colts have been in position to follow, most recently Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and Charismatic in 1999.

Jockeys who have been in Espinoza's situation say the expectations can be enormous, and the devastation can be equally overpowering if race day does not go as planned.

"For weeks I had this awful feeling, like my world had ended," said Kent Desormeaux, whose Triple Crown bid with Real Quiet came up short by a nose against Victory Gallop. "It takes a while to get over it."

In that sense, Espinoza said, he feels relieved that he remains relatively unknown on the national racing scene.

"I try not to think about [the pressure]," he said. "I try to keep busy so I don't have time to think."

In some circles, he is considered more lucky than talented, the thinking being that any competitive jockey could succeed with a horse like War Emblem. And should War Emblem win, his controversial owner, Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and high-profile trainer Bob Baffert will likely receive much of the attention.

None of that bothers Espinoza, who prefers to relinquish the limelight. He is the first to say that War Emblem is a rare talent indeed, but he also defends his part in their success, noting that he won the Derby and the Preakness with different strategies--taking the lead in the Derby and staying just off the pace in the Preakness.

"I tricked them," he said of his competition in those two races. "I had a plan."

Espinoza first began making big plans as a 14-year-old who thought there was no future in farming, certainly not a financially stable one. He followed his friends to Mexico City where he managed to get a job driving a bus. After six months, his mother convinced the underage, underpaid and overworked bus driver to come home.

Shortly after his return, a wealthy businessman hired Espinoza to look after his horses and eventually brought him to Hippodromo de las Americas, the biggest race track in Mexico. Espinoza had been there once before, as a spectator who quickly lost his money and interest.

But when a trainer took an interest in turning him into a jockey, Espinoza paid attention.

"Once I decided that's what I was going to do with my life, I put all my focus and energy into it," Espinoza said. "One day I woke up and said, 'This is what's going to help me succeed in life.'"

In 1992, at 20, he won with his first mount. Although he continued to do well, he grew restless. Other jockeys shook their heads when he told them about his plans to immigrate to Northern California in 1993. "You don't know the language or have any contacts," they warned him, but Espinoza felt he had nothing to lose.

He didn't expect that he'd have to hang around the stables every morning for three months before someone gave him a break. But a break was all that Espinoza needed.

"The horses would run for him, some guys just have that gift, and Victor had it," said Junior Coffey, a former NFL player and long-time Bay Area trainer, who was one of the first to put him to work as an apprentice jockey.

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