Dave Harmon

Espinoza's Confidence Not Shaken by Pressure

California Chrome's rider ready for anything after 2002 experience with War Emblem.

California Chrome's regular pilot Victor Espinoza has been here before.

After winning the 2002 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) aboard War Emblem, Espinoza and War Emblem added the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) two weeks later before failing to become the first horse since Affirmed to sweep the Triple Crown when he finished  eighth in that year's Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Comparing his previous Preakness Stakes winner to California Chrome, Espinoza said his current mount's versatility sets him apart.

"War Emblem only liked to run in front," Espinoza said on a rainy morning May 16 at Pimlico Race Course. "It was tough. California Chrome, he is very calm. He can be in front or behind, inside or outside. It's different. California Chrome gives me a lot of confidence."

As for the pressure of riding the Kentucky Derby winner in the Preakness, Espinoza is clear there is a target on his back, but he is doing his best to approach the second leg of the Triple Crown like any other race.

"It is pressure," he said of riding the 3-5 morning line favorite for the Preakness. "It hasn't affected me so far. Every race, especially being the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, is a little bit of pressure.

"Anytime I ride the favorite, or for any jockey not just me, there is pressure. Everyone is trying to beat you. California Chrome can handle it. I can handle it, too."

Aiming for his second Preakness Stakes victory, Espinoza is appreciative of the opportunity.

"I'm ready for it," he said. "I never dreamed of or thought about how many I wanted to win. I've been lucky in my career and I ride super-nice horses. Coming back here with a horse like California Chrome is something special for me."

Without revealing a specific strategy, Espinoza's chief concern in the Preakness is that his mount is comfortable throughout the race.

"(Tactics) may be a little different. It feels like there is a lot of speed in there," Espinoza said. "I don't really know how he's going to break out of the gate. If they are going pretty fast up front, you don't want to get in a speed duel with other horses. I just want him to go at his own pace.

"Wherever he's at, as long as he is comfortable and happy, he can run either way (on the lead or from behind). When the gate opens everything can change. I have to be ready for anything when the gate opens."

When asked if he has ever asked California Chrome for his best, Espinoza said: "I never have asked him for all he has. I don't know exactly if he has a lot more or if he is running as hard as he can."

Espinoza is confident there's more in the the colt's tank. "In my opinion, yes," he responded when asked.

As far as California Chrome's competition in the Preakness, which includes new shooters such as Social Inclusion , Bayern , and Dynamic Impact, Espinoza refused to acknowledge a single threat.

"There's not just one," he said. "I think all of them. That's why they are in the race. They're all ready to go. Everybody believes they have a chance. I am ready for all of them."

Espinoza credits the successful jockey-trainer relationship with California Chrome to the chestnut's conditioner, Art Sherman, who he rides for regularly on the Southern California circuit.

"Sometimes it can help when the trainer wants you to do something," Espinoza said. "In these kinds of races, normally, most of the trainers tell you exactly how to ride their horse. Art and I have a different relationship and he just lets me do my own thing, the right thing to do for California Chrome during a race."

Espinoza shared that following the Kentucky Derby, he was chided for standing up in the irons to celebrate before crossing the wire.

"A couple of trainers after I won the Kentucky Derby kind of mentioned that you should celebrate at the wire," Espinoza said. "One of them was Bob Baffert (trainer of War Emblem). He said, 'You did the same thing with War Emblem.' I told him, 'I know that, but I still have two nice pictures framed in my house.' "

Avoiding talk of a Triple Crown is nearly impossible for the connections of a Kentucky Derby winner. While Espinoza isn't looking too far in the future, he hopes history is kinder this time around. His chance for the Crown in 2002 was compromised when War Emblem stumbled badly at the start of the Belmont Stakes.

"He came back good after the Derby," Espinoza said of California Chrome. "He's ready to go and I'm ready, too."