Curiosity is what drives Victor Espinoza.
After 22 years as a jockey, one who will be making his sixth start in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 3 on the morning-line favorite California Chrome , he said every horse has something to teach.
"Every horse is different, and every race sets up differently," said the native of Mexico. "I am always trying to figure out what a horse is thinking, so I learn something new every day. Anyone who has been a jockey this long knows it is a mental challenge. I look forward to riding every day to see what I can learn."
Now Espinoza hopes to take the knowledge he's accumulated from his five previous trips in the Run for the Roses and deliver a winning ride on California Chrome, who comes into the Derby on a four-race winning streak that includes a 5 1/4-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
"You know in my first Derby, (Congaree ) ran really well, but after the race I kept thinking over and over what I could have done differently," he said. "Could I have ridden him a little better?"
Congaree finished a good third behind winner Monarchos and Invisible Ink. The following year, Espinoza wired the Kentucky Derby field with War Emblem.
While War Emblem started from post 5, as will California Chrome, and both horses possess a lethal turn of foot, the similarities end there. California Chrome did wire the field in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) but his running style is more versatile than War Emblem's, according to Espinoza.
"California Chrome is easier to ride," he said. "He does not have to be on the front, while War Emblem was one way; he had to go to the front. That is it. Some horses that have only one way to go are harder on the jockey because you don't always know how the race is going to set up. California Chrome is a very kind horse, and you can put him wherever you want."
The acceleration California Chrome displayed at the top of the stretch in the Santa Anita Derby did give Espinoza a flash back to the 2002 Kentucky Derby.
"I remember turning for home in the stretch on War Emblem. When I let him go, it was whoosh!" he said. "He accelerated so quickly. It is the same thing for California Chrome."
In the Santa Anita Derby, Steven Coburn and Perry Martin's California homebred son of Lucky Pulpit snuck in front of Dublin coming out of the second turn and then turned on the jets.
"He drops to the ground; his whole body," Espinoza said. "His legs reach so far in front that is why he makes a lot of ground."
Espinoza would make three more trips to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May after his victorious year—in 2004 on Borrego (10th), in 2006 on Sinister Minister (16th), and in 2011 with Midnight Interlude (16th). With each trip, though not nearly as successful as his first two, he said took away a little more insight into how to ride this tricky race.
"The experience helps me make quicker decisions, hopefully the right decision, because it has to be made in a second," he said.
Espinoza likes his spot this year. He is brimming with confidence over the horse who caught his eye nine months ago at Del Mar. The way California Chrome was built and how he carried himself told the rider this was a classy racehorse. Espinoza remembered that he had hoped at the time that he might one day get the chance to ride him.
Five months later, his agent Brian Beach called him and explained that trainer Art Sherman was making a rider change, and the mount was his.
"I thought my agent was messing with me, he called me the next day and said, 'No, really, you're riding him.' The first time I rode him, there was nothing about him that was a stand-out, and he was so mellow. But I was impressed by how he moved and his attitude. I felt a lot of confidence that he would win," Espinoza said of his trip in the King Glorious Stakes, which they won by 6 1/4 lengths.
Standing at Barn 20 on the Churchill Downs backside two days before the Derby, Espinoza marveled at the chain of events that brought him back to Louisville.
"It is one of those things with racing," he said. "You put an eye on a horse you never think you'll ride let alone be riding as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. It is just crazy."