Mired in a career malaise just three years ago, jockey Victor Espinoza now stands at the precipice of superstardom as he contemplates winning a third Kentucky Derby with favored American Pharoah, an initial Kentucky Oaks with Stellar Wind, and possible induction into Racing's most hallowed fraternity, The National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.
Espinoza, who has won 12 Southern California riding titles, including two at Santa Anita, will turn 43 on May 23. The Mexico City native is single and currently resides in nearby Sierra Madre. Espinoza sat down for a question and answer session following workouts at Santa Anita on Thursday morning.
Q. American Pharoah has been brilliant in winning both the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby with you. Is there any doubt in your mind that he'll get the mile and a quarter in the Derby?
“No, not at all. He galloped out very strong in both races and in the last one, I was trying to pull him up and go easy with him, but he was pretty tough. He was full of himself and so the outrider helped me out.”
Q. You know American Pharoah as well as anyone, but were you at all surprised at how well he's run since coming back this year?
“No, because I have had all the confidence in him since the first time I rode him at Del Mar (a 4 ¾ length win in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity). The way he won that day, I just said ‘Wow, he's an amazing horse.'”
Q. Many people say that it's no coincidence that California Chrome got on a roll when you started riding him late in 2013. Are you a better rider now than when you won your first Derby with War Emblem in 2002?
“I'm more mature now. I'm not afraid to make quick decisions during races. I have more confidence now, and in my early years, I would think twice—‘Should I do this or not?' Now, I just react to what happens because I have more confidence.”
Q. It's often said that there's no substitute for experience when it comes to winning the Kentucky Derby. Do you agree with that?
“Yes. I remember my first Derby and everything was new. There's a lot of things happening with the crowd and the big field. I used to think about how amazing it was to be in the Derby. Now, I don't want to be in the Derby, I want to win it. I'm not just excited to be there, I'm excited to win it.”
Q. Bob Baffert's had an amazing career and he's had a ton of success in big races, but he seems to draw the rail a lot, like he did in the 2010 Derby with Lookin At Lucky. Entries for the Derby will be taken a week from Wednesday. How important is post position to American Pharoah?
“Post position is important for everybody. Baffert's been lucky, but I was kidding around with him last year and told him ‘You better put me on something next year, ‘cause the last time you won was with me (War Emblem, in 2002).' Life is crazy, you can't worry about the post position. We'll just hope for the best.”
Q. Do you get emotional when they play “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses come on the track for the Derby?
“I never think about the song. My mind is on the horse I'm on. I want to make sure he's happy and doing things right when we go to the gate. If my horse is happy, I'm happy.”
Q. Baffert also has Dortmund. I know you saw him win the Santa Anita Derby and he seems to be improving with each race. Does he scare you?
“Everyone scares me. Dortmund, Carpe Diem and a couple others. I see Dortmund every day and he's doing really good.”
Q. You've got a great shot to win your first Kentucky Oaks with John Sadler's Stellar Wind. She won the Santa Anita Oaks by 5 ¼ lengths and she looks like something special. How good is she?
“She's amazing. The first time I rode her, I told John that she's a special filly and I'm really excited to be riding her. Sure enough, she won the Oaks here very impressively. She has size, talent and pedigree. On top of that, I'm a very dependable guy. It goes 50-50.”
Q. Your business had slowed down quite a bit three or four years ago. Did you make some changes that helped you to turn things around?
“Yeah, for sure. Being a jockey is fun, but we all have ups and downs. For a while there, nobody could find me, I guess they lost my number, but maybe I lost theirs too. I did feel that I was not focused enough. Maybe I didn't ‘feel it' like I needed to. I was coming out in the mornings the same as I always have, but deep down, maybe the desire wasn't there. One day, I woke up and I said ‘This is not how I'm going to end up my career. I changed agents a couple years ago and hired Brian (Beach, January, 2013). I think I got back to being myself. I had to change my motivation and everything started to turn around. I got focused and I said ‘This is it. Ride smart and be 100 percent.'”
Q. You're on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. What would it mean to you to be voted in?
“It means a lot to just be nominated. I never even dreamed of being in the Hall of Fame. When I first started out, I just thought about winning one race, so to be nominated for the Hall of Fame is unbelievable. Nobody can control what other people say or think or how they vote. But if I got voted in, it would be a tremendous honor. I think it would say that I rode with the best and I was one of the best.”
Q. Twenty five years ago, you were driving a bus in Mexico City. Do have any advice for young men or women who are considering a career as a jockey?
“Work hard and treat your career as a job. Always remember, it's easy to get to the top, it's very difficult to stay there. When you're doing good, you need to work harder. I would say, look forward, never look back. Everybody has a right to have fun, but your job has to come first.”
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