BOZICH | Has jockey Victor Espinoza cracked the Kentucky Derby c - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Has jockey Victor Espinoza cracked the Kentucky Derby code?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – There's a stack of Kentucky Derby developments I cannot explain, but this one belongs at the top of the list:

Jockey Victor Espinoza has won more Kentucky Derbies than the amazing Laffit Pincay Jr.

Or Pat Day.

Or John Velasquez.

“I don't even believe that myself,” Espinoza said.

Believe it. It's true. Espinoza has two Derby victories and is chasing a third. He has the mount on American Pharoah, the favorite for Derby 141 at Churchill Downs Saturday.

Nobody rode a horse as fearlessly or as intelligently as Pincay. But the Derby served him a consistent plate of heartburn: One win in 21 tries.

Nobody dominated Churchill Downs the way Day did – except for the feature race the first Saturday of May. Make it 22 starts, one win for Day.

Velasquez is considered the best rider of this generation. He's one for 16 in the race America remembers.

The calculator does not lie: Pincay, Day and Velasquez are a combined three for 59 in the Derby.

Espinoza is two for six – scoring on War Emblem in 2002 and then doing it again last year on California Chrome.

The jockey will not try to tell you that he is a Derby savant, a rider who has cracked a special code. He will not argue that there is a special path along the rail or that you have to win the Derby from the front of the pack.

“I'm just a regular guy, trying to win another one,” Espinoza said.

I'm just a regular writer, trying to put this in perspective. Three Derby victories on seven mounts would move Espinoza into a special club -- and start the talk that Espinoza has cracked the code. He would move into a club with Angel Cordero and Gary Stevens.

Only nine jockeys have won the race three times. Only five riders have won it in consecutive years. Espinoza is primed to become the fifth because he won the Derby and Preakness on California Chrome last spring.

“Victor is a tremendous big-race rider,” said Bob Baffert, the man who trains American Pharoah. “He always keeps his cool.”

Primed is the proper verb here because Espinoza has the prime mount in the race. American Pharoah has flashed to four consecutive victories by about 22 combined lengths.

The unbeaten streak began after Espinoza replaced Martin Garcia as the colt's rider last September. Nobody has been finished within three lengths of American Pharoah since Baffert made that switch.

If you watch the replay of the colt's last race, a thunderous eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, Espinoza did not raise his eyebrows at his colt. Never tapped him. Never shook him. Never barked at him.

That is one reason American Pharoah was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite.

“I've ridden a lot of great horses, but American Pharoah, I don't feel like he's going fast,” Espinoza said. “It's almost like I start riding him and I'm 10 to 15 lengths ahead of everybody so it's like, ‘Wow, now I have to slow him down.'

“He was just cruising around. I was pulling him up the last sixteenth. I was trying to slow him down.”

Espinoza will turn 43 in about three weeks. He's been the jockey everybody wanted, finishing in the Top 10 in national earnings, three times from 2002-through-2005.

Espinoza has also been the jockey trainers stopped calling. He missed the Top 20 in earnings, three times from 2010-through-2013.

He understands how all this Derby and Triple Crown silliness works.

He won the first two legs of the Triple Crown on War Emblem and then finished eighth in the Belmont after his horse nearly went down in the starting gate.

He won the first two legs of the Triple Crown on California Chrome and then finished tied for fourth in the Belmont. Chrome came out of that race with blood on his right front foot, likely from kicking himself.

Some analysts, like Andy Beyer of the Daily Racing Form, said that Espinoza might have cost California Chrome the Belmont by misjudging the slow early pace.

“I've been through the highest highs and the lowest lows,” Espinoza said.

“When you win the Derby, everybody knows your name. After you get beat in the Belmont, there is silence. After you get beat in the Belmont, it's like, ‘Victor who?'

“It's really easy to get on top but it's really hard to stay on top in anything. I've had to work harder. No matter what, my career is all about work. I just try to be the same. I'm just trying to win another Derby.”

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