Santa Anita Park stewards handed jockey Victor Espinoza a seven-day suspension Sept. 28 for his tactics in the handling of Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) the preceding day.
Espinoza, aboard Sky Kingdom, fanned 2-5 favorite Shared Belief wide into the clubhouse turn and down the backstretch in the 1 1/8-mile race. Shared Belief, who remained five paths wide around the far turn, won the race by a neck to remain undefeated in seven races. But with Mike Smith aboard, Shared Belief worked extremely hard to edge pacesetter Fed Biz for the victory.
The decision came down from the stewards Sept. 28 following a meeting with Espinoza and his agent, Brian Beach. The incident was being hotly debated at Santa Anita's "Clocker's Corner" the morning after the race as well.
Bob Baffert trains both Sky Kingdom and Fed Biz, but told the Santa Anita publicity office he had nothing to do with the tactics employed by Espinoza.
"These guys are fierce competitors," Baffert said, alluding to Espinoza, Smith, and others in the jockey colony. "I see it happen to my horses when you have a good one. I didn't tell Victor to do that. He stayed away from my other horse, Fed Biz…Game On Dude, that's why I retired him, because he was starting to get mugged, every race. I didn't cry about it. I just retired him."
"I don't know exactly what Victor was doing," Smith said Sunday. "My horse overcame it and showed a lot of fight. He finished the race strong and he had to work for it after being taken out (wide).
"But he came out of the race good. I just went to see him. He ate up, he's happy, so all's good. Sometimes a good race like that will put more in him."
Stewards Scott Chaney, Kim Sawyer, and Tom Ward suspended Espinoza for racing days Oct. 4-5 and 9-13. He was penalized for violation of two California racing rules: 1699 (d), riding "carelessly, or willfully, so as to permit their mount to interfere with or impede any other horse," and 1884 for "unsatisfactory ride."
Sky Kingdom finished last at odds of 36-1, the longest shot in the field of seven.
Espinoza will not be able to ride in designated stakes races during the length of his ban, an exception that is usually extended to allow riders to honor prior agreements with trainers and owners. The ban would include stakes races of Oct. 4-5—the $300,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (gr. I), $200,000 City of Hope Mile (gr. IIT), and $100,000 L.A. Woman Stakes (gr. III).
Beach said they plan to meet with an attorney to consider an appeal.
"We have a few days to decide," Beach said. "We're going to speak to an attorney and consider our options."
Asked his response to the ruling, Beach said, "Well, I think it's pretty unprecedented. There was no contact between the horses. Victor has always been a very safe rider in his career."
It is ironic, Beach noted, that Espinoza, the regular rider of California Chrome , would be set down for riding tactics after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), in which the dual classic winner was kept pinned in along the inside by other riders.
Beach said he believed the suspension was the result of "outside and media pressures."
In particular, he singled out Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who was highly critical of Espinoza in his role as racing analyst for NBC, which aired the race on its sports channel.
Beach noted that Bailey, aboard Eddington , kept Smarty Jones on his inside while racing wide in the 2004 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), probably costing Smarty Jones in his attempt to sweep the Triple Crown.
"Jerry Bailey has a short memory. He seems to have forgotten Smarty Jones," said Beach.
Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Shared Belief, said the 3-year-old gelding was in good condition a day after the race. The Awesome Again served as Shared Belief's final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 1 at Santa Anita, in which he could be the favorite.
"He came out of it real nice," the Hall of Fame conditioner said. "Everything's good.
"We're big boys out here racing and as long as we won, we overcame a lot, so I'm grateful to get the win."