An easy rider

Re­laxed jockey Espinoza is aim­ing to guide Amer­i­can Pharoah to the Triple Crown with a vic­tory in the Bel­mont Stakes

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - CHRIS ERSK­INE chris.ersk­ine@la­times.com Twit­ter: @er­sk­ine­times

Cool horse, chill rider. To­gether they could win “Danc­ing With the Stars.”

In­stead, they are poised to win a Triple Crown, an even rarer oc­cur­rence. You have a World Se­ries win­ner ev­ery year, and a World Cup cham­pion ev­ery four years. But pretty much no one un­der 45 knows what a horse rac­ing Triple Crown vic­tory looks like.

Now we have this horse that wins in all kinds of ways, driven by a guy so re­laxed that he pre­pares for big races by tak­ing a nap.

You start to think that if Amer­i­can Pharoah and jockey Vic­tor Espinoza can’t win a Triple Crown, who can?

The plot line of late is that the big purses and grow­ing pres­tige of the Preak­ness and Bel­mont stakes make it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to win a Triple Crown. More money means more fresh legs. Be­sides, horses are bred for speed these days, not en­durance. Satur­day’s Bel­mont is also the long­est of the three races, on an ex­haust­ing sandy track that rain could turn to cake mix.

Run­ning the 11⁄ mile Bel­mont in this stuff is like end­ing your gru­el­ing round of golf with a 700-yard par five. In ski boots.

To win the Triple Crown in 1978, Af­firmed had to beat Aly­dar three times, the Joe Frazier to his Muham­mad Ali. Amer­i­can Pharoah is rac­ing against ex­pec­ta­tions and that ker­nel of doubt that gets in­side your head: Is a Triple Crown even pos­si­ble any­more? Like Joe DiMag­gio’s 56-game hit­ting streak, or Wilt Cham­ber­lain’s 100-point game.

Lis­ten, if you’re fond of this jewel of a sport, pull for Amer­i­can Pharoah on Satur­day. For 15 min­utes, a horse will be the most fa­mous ath­lete in America. And his Mex­i­can-born pi­lot, Espinoza, will be on top of the world.

You can’t help but note the dis­tinct paths the two took to get there. Amer­i­can Pharoah is a sil­ver spoon young­ster, bred for greatness. Espinoza is one of 12 kids raised on a dairy farm near Mex­ico City.

“For me, it’s what I had to do to sur­vive,” Espinoza said be­fore leav­ing for New York this week. “This is what I do.”

He was so poor when he first started that he lived in a tack room at Golden Gate Fields near San Fran­cisco, trainer Steve Specht re­calls.

“He’s al­ways rid­den hard. When he first started, he was fear­less but not reck­less,” Specht said. “He’d ride a horse through a hole you couldn’t drive a nail through. You’d hold your breath.”

Since then, Espinoza has made about $18 mil­lion in the sport and ranks 19th in all-time earn­ings. To this day, he in­sists he has no great pas­sion for rid­ing these sweat-soaked Maser­atis. Just a job, he says.

“I call bull on that,” friend and ri­val Gary Stevens said. “I’ve seen that look in his eyes when he wins.”

At 43, Espinoza races four days a week at Santa Anita, also work­ing out twice a day — weights in the morn­ing, run­ning the hills just be­fore dusk.

Un­mar­ried and with no kids, he tithes to City of Hope and is out and about fre­quently in the L.A. sports scene. A few weeks ago, he threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game; on Fri­day, he hung out with the An­gels. He also turns out for the Ducks and the Kings, drawn, he says, by hockey’s buzzy and fe­ro­cious crowds.

The buzzi­est crowd of the year, though, will prob­a­bly be a throng of 90,000 in New York on Satur­day, hop­ing to see his­tory made.

“I have no pres­sure right now,” he said. “I treat it like I do all races. I’ve been there.”

In­deed, Espinoza has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown be­fore, in 2002 aboard War Em­blem (fin­ished eighth in the Bel­mont) and last year on Cal­i­for­nia Chrome (fin­ished fourth).

If there are nerves, and there have to be, they are kept well be­low the sur­face.

Stevens, who also will ride Satur­day, re­calls how he and Espinoza shared a locker in the crowded jock­eys room at this year’s Ken­tucky Derby. About 90 min­utes be­fore the race, Espinoza told Stevens he was go­ing to take a nap.

“Go ahead,” Stevens said. “I’ll wake you.”

Skep­ti­cal of that, Espinoza skipped the nap.

Look, Dan Marino never won a Su­per Bowl. Ernie Banks never even got to a post­sea­son, nor did Joe Torre as a player. Now we’re about to see, with beery and bated breath, whether the 5-foot-2 Espinoza can seize what has be­come sport’s big­gest chal­lenge, or sim­ply come close again.

Me, I’ll bet him to win.

Matt Slocum As­so­ci­ated Press

VIC­TOR ESPINOZA says he doesn’t feel any ex­tra pres­sure rid­ing Amer­i­can Pharoah in pur­suit of a Triple Crown.

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