On Saturday, Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza will ride Midcourt for trainer John Shirreffs in the Grade III $100,000 Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar.
A victory would be stakes win No. 102 for Espinoza at Del Mar and move him within six of Corey Nakatani for the No. 2 spot on the track's all-time list behind Chris McCarron's 134.
It would be another step for Espinoza on the remarkable comeback from career-threatening spinal cord injuries incurred in a morning workout fall at Del Mar early in the 2018 summer meeting. And it might serve as reinforcement to the resolve he's shown over the past nine months to remain Southern California-based.
Espinoza, and his agent Brian Beach, are well aware of the difficulties that have prompted the recent exodus for the Midwest circuit by a few long-established Southern California circuit riders.
“We've for sure thought about it,” Beach said Friday about relocating. “Victor's comeback from his injury was right at the beginning of the situation at Santa Anita with the rains and all. Between the cancellation of racing and the rains it was hard to get him a leg up in the mornings.
“It was bad timing for us and a bad situation for the industry from which neither of us have recovered. Businesswise for us, overall for the industry.”
The respite from turmoil that was the summer meeting here was a time of continuing the comeback for Espinoza, 47, who was not far removed from riding American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015, one year after victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes on California Chrome. He won four stakes to move past Gary Stevens into third on the all-time list and, on August 18, picked up the mount on Midcourt when Tiago Pereira was serving a suspension.
Espinoza guided the 4-year-old Midnight Lute gelding to a win that day and followed up with a victory in the Comma to the Top stakes at Santa Anita on October 27.
“(Shirreffs) has always said this isn't an easy horse to ride, but Victor gets along very well with him,” Beach said. “
Bob Baffert-trained Roadster is the 5-2 morning line favorite and Baffert's Leading Score is the 7-2 co-third choice with Midcourt in the field of six.
“Bob's always tough in this races, and we know Roadster,” Beach said. “We just beat Roadster with Flagstaff (in the Damascus at Santa Anita) so we know how tough he is.”
The saying that tough times don't last but tough people do may be applicable to Espinoza and Beach.
“Short fields and fewer races put a lot of stress on everyone,” Beach said.
“We've thought about leaving. We've been approached by owners about going some other place. Victor has ridden elsewhere before. I've gone on the road. But he's willing to stick it out and so am I. Our preferred place is California and it (moving) is not a serious consideration at this time.”
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