Derby Was Memorable 'Blind Date' For Espinoza

Published in the May 11 issue of The Blood-Horse
On the morning of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the phone rang in Victor Espinoza's hotel room--it was a wake-up call he won't soon forget. On the line was trainer Bob Baffert, reminding Espinoza he wanted to see him regarding his mount aboard War Emblem that afternoon.

The day before, Espinoza had guided the Baffert-trained Sugar Babe to a maiden victory in the last race. Baffert asked the rider to see him in the morning to go over some videotapes and plot strategy. Forgive Espinoza the need for a refresher course. First, he was about to compete in just his second Derby, having ridden Congaree to a third-place finish last year for Baffert, and second, he'd never even laid eyes on War Emblem.

The phone rang sometime between 8 and 8:30. "He said it was going to be my first blind date," Espinoza said.

The Southern California-based Espinoza arrived at Churchill Downs, but was unable to get through the tightened security on the backstretch, so he headed to the jocks' room on the front side, then was going to walk the track back to Barn 33. "A security guard told me that if I signed his program, he'd take me over there. I said, 'Oh, this is great.' That way I didn't have to dirty my shoes."

A 15-minute conversation led to the classic victory in 2:01.13. Baffert told him to try and just get out of the gate cleanly, and "we'll take it from there. I thought if I just take the lead easy, everyone will let me go," Espinoza said. The now three-time Derby-winning trainer hammered home his message. "I don't know how many times he told me 'to wait.' He told me plenty of times to wait," Espinoza said.

"He didn't panic," said fellow Southern California rider Eddie Delahoussaye, a two-time Derby-winning rider who rode in his first Derby when Espinoza was just two. "If he keeps riding like that, I think his career will continue going up. If you watch him over the years, you see he's great on the cheap horses, but he's good on a good horse...if he keeps his cool."

Showing a coolness in the saddle beyond his years, Espinoza blocked out the pressure, and the other 17 runners. "I just focused on my horse," he said. "I didn't worry about any of the other horses. It felt like I was sleeping." While Espinoza and War Emblem glided over the track, it was their competition that fell into a deep slumber.

A 29-year-old from Mexico City, Espinoza's star is aloft. He bagged both Hollywood Park titles in 2000 that sandwiched an impressive Del Mar meeting where he drew off by 20 wins. That fall, he guided The Thoroughbred Corp.'s Spain to a 55-1 upset win in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Not bad for a gentleman who arrived in the U.S. in 1993 unable to maneuver the English language. But language can be easily overcome--when you win. He was the leading apprentice at Bay Meadows in 1993 and 1994. Heading south, he won back-to-back riding titles at Fairplex in 1995-96.

Espinoza's exposure has risen nationally since hooking up with Baffert. While they got the roses this time, it hasn't been all rosy. A year ago, Baffert pulled Espinoza off Stonerside Stable's Congaree in favor of Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey for the Preakness (gr. I). Espinoza picked up the mount on A P Valentine, who finished second to Point Given, but ahead of Congaree, in Baltimore. "That's behind us," Espinoza said. "There are no bad things between him and I. He just wanted to try something different. I was not worried when he took me off Congaree. He's a trainer--he's the coach."

Espinoza was also aboard A P Valentine when second in the Belmont (gr. I). His first classic mount came in 2000, with a sixth-place finish aboard Hugh Hefner in the Preakness. That's a 1-2-1 slate in just five classic mounts.

"He's a very competitive young man," said Chris McCarron, another two-time Derby-winning rider and Southern California contemporary. "He works hard--he works out a lot--at developing his body, kind of the way the younger generation is doing now."

"He's an aggressive rider," Delahoussaye said. "I think he's not polished yet--he's still young, but he rode a great race today."