Jockey Victor Espinoza has been a model of consistency aboard California Chrome , giving the 3-year-old colt a pair of flawless rides in capturing the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
But the enormity of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Park oval will present unique challenges during the running of the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) for the journeyman who currently hangs his tack at Santa Anita Park—a one mile in circumference racetrack.
Former rider and now NYRA racing analyst Richard Migliore, who has called both Belmont Park and Santa Anita home during his three-decade career in the saddle, is concerned about the potential pitfalls of being a visiting jockey on the wide, sweeping turns of "Big Sandy."
"I wish (Espinoza) was coming here to ride (for the next two weeks) to really familiarize himself with the racetrack," Migliore said.
Besides recognizing Santa Anita's tighter turns and propensity for its racing surface to be more speed-favoring, Migliore also sees the need for a rider to adjust his internal clock—realigning the almost subconscious aspects of race-riding—to be better prepared to succeed in the Belmont Stakes.
"Riding is so instinctual. You ride in stages. Heading into the second turn (when you're used to a smaller oval), your hands and body language are trained to give the horse its cue," said Migliore. "You open your knees and lower your seat (asking your horse to pick it up). The problem is (at Belmont Park) you're not three furlongs from home at that point. You're probably four and a half furlongs from the wire. And once you give the horse that cue, you can't take it back."
Back in 2004, Migliore went through that mental process in reverse when he switched his tack from New York to the California circuit.
"Lafitt Pincay Jr. told me 'Don't feel bad if you don't win any races on the downhill turf course,'" recalled Migliore, referring to Santa Anita's famed El Camino Real Chute. "We were racing at Hollywood Park at the time, but I was living close to Santa Anita. Every night, I'd go home and walk that turf course. I'd visualize myself riding it. (When the Santa Anita meet started) I didn't win my first few times over it. But during that meeting, I won 15 races on it, more than any other rider."
At the 2008 Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita, "The Mig" won the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (gr. IT) atop Desert Code on that same course with a dramatic stretch run, perhaps the biggest victory of his 4,450 win career.
Migliore believes he witnessed this potential Triple Crown pitfall of being unfamiliar with "Big Sandy" when Stewart Elliot, who was competing mostly at Parx, arrived at Belmont Park to ride Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes.
"There was a gold rail that day and I don't think (Elliot) recognized it," said Migliore, who won the race after the Belmont Stakes in wire-to-wire fashion, never leaving the rail. "When Eddington (who was putting pressure on the pacesetting Smarty Jones) fell back, Elliot had him in the two-path. He had a chance to drop over to the gold rail and give his horse a breather. Instead, Rock Hard Ten came up the rail to challenge him. Getting that kind of breather might have made a difference (in the outcome of finishing second to Birdstone)."
Of course, Victor Espinoza is not a complete stranger to Belmont Park. In 2002, he piloted Triple Crown hopeful War Emblem, who after a horrific stumbling start finished a disappointing eighth. Back in 2001, Espinosa finished second aboard A P Valentine behind winner Point Given. He has not ridden in the Belmont Stakes since 2006, when he finished ninth on Sacred Light. Espinoza also has an older brother, former jockey Jose Espinoza, who knows Belmont well.
Make no mistake, Migliore is rooting hard for California Chrome and his jockey to deliver a Triple Crown for the sport of racing and its fans. In the press conference after winning the Preakness, Migliore asked Espinoza whether he'd be coming to ride in New York in the weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes. It was there Espinoza informed him that he'd be sticking to his normal riding schedule in California.
"If it was me, I'd want to be very comfortable here (at Belmont Park)," said Migliore. "I'd want to know the daily routine, where everything was (in the jock's room). I wouldn't want to feel like I was in the visitors' locker room. I want to feel like I was part of the home team."