Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Humble Beginning to Riding Chrome Jockey Espinoza Has Quite a Story

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Humble Beginning to Riding Chrome Jockey Espinoza Has Quite a Story

Article excerpt

BALTIMORE -- Long before he became America's jockey of the moment, the man who holds the reins on horse racing's latest hope for the Triple Crown, Victor Espinoza drove a bus.

Wait a minute. Back up. It wasn't just a bus. Espinoza, the jockey for Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, drove a bus in Mexico City, long rated one of the most dangerous cities in the world for motorists. The World Health Organization lists traffic accidents as the No. 1 killer in Mexico, and in Mexico City a motorist is killed or injured every hour.

Los Angeles Times writer Richard Faussett described Mexico City traffic as "a seemingly infinite maze of daredevils and incompetents, of axle-bending potholes and curb-hugging taco stands, of signless seven-way intersections and baffling multidirectional traffic circles, of tamale vendors on tricycles and cops hungry for bribe money."

And Espinoza was driving a bus right in the middle of it at age 17. No wonder starting from the No. 5 post in a 19-horse Kentucky Derby field was no problem for Espinoza. Compared to Mexico City, the Derby probably felt like Interstate 70 through Kansas.

"It's a lot easier riding horses than driving in that traffic in Mexico City," Espinoza said. "It was a hard life for a while."

Nothing has come easy for Espinoza, who worked long hours on farms in Mexico, planting crops and milking cows. He scraped up enough to go to jockey school, and scraped to make it in Mexico City before moving to northern California in 1993. Once in the U.S., he was so determined to stick it out that he wouldn't allow himself to watch Spanish-language television or listen to his native tongue on the radio, despite the loneliness of those days.

From there to here -- a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey with the 3-5 favorite in the Preakness Stakes and a colt that has won five races in a row without being seriously threatened -- is a journey Espinoza said has left him reeling.

"It's an amazing feeling, to win two Kentucky Derbies," he said. "I never thought in a million years I'd ever win one Kentucky Derby when I started my career. I felt we had a lot of pressure on us, going into the Derby as the favorite. But I told [California Chrome trainer] Art [Sherman] after the race, now the pressure is really going to be on."

Espinoza knows he's getting a critical look from Sherman every time he rides, because the 77-year-old trainer is a former jockey himself. But he hand-picked Espinoza to ride his prized 3-year-old, even if he did say he felt like taking over in the final 75 yards once the Derby looked to be in the bag.

"I've known Victor a long time," Sherman said. "He rode a lot of winners for me in northern California where I trained for a lot of years. I knew he had a lot of talent. We needed to make a change at one time. …

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