Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Sports

California Chrome jockey Espinoza savors 2nd shot at Triple Crown

ELMONT, N.Y. — It feels so much easier this time for Victor Espinoza, even if the jockey's challenge has swelled since his last Triple Crown attempt.

The crackling of pressure that rang out around him in 2002 has been replaced by easy smiles and a seize-the-moment attitude. As the 42-year-old bounces from TV appearance to TV appearance (including David Letterman on Wednesday) and makes other appearances (including throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees game Monday), there is a decided lack of angst as he readies for a second attempt at history.

"This time, I am more prepared, more ready to do things I will like," Espinoza said this week. "To get a second chance, what are the odds of that? I'm trying to … not worry about anything."

Twelve years after navigating the five-week trial by fire with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, a more mature Espinoza has another shot at a Triple Crown when he guides California Chrome in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

While no one the past 36 years has figured out how to get their horse to sweep the races, giving in to the stress and "what if" torment isn't the way.

Though it was not any mental error on Espinoza's part that resulted in War Emblem's eighth-place finish in the 2002 Belmont — a stumble out of the gate took care of that — there are lessons learned from a dozen years ago.

There are outside demands on time when a Triple Crown is at stake. Espinoza is handling such commitments by making sure they happen on his terms.

"I only do what I can when I have extra time because in 2002, it was too much," Espinoza said. "Before (the Belmont), everyone is trying so hard to talk to you and trying so hard to find out what is going on. My job is first, and everything else is extra. I don't want to be stressing out and worried about other stuff when my main job is Saturday."

It does not hurt that he has a better horse. Where War Emblem was a one-dimensional frontrunner, California Chrome is more the push-button variety. The son of Lucky Pulpit has enough speed to dictate the pace if need be but is handy enough to rate and has a kick Espinoza says he has yet to get to the bottom of.

"I have a lot of options with Chrome," Espinoza said.

"I believe I have a better chance this time than in 2002 because I have a different kind of horse. I have a lot of different tools I can use as I need it."

To reacquaint himself with the 11/2-mile Belmont Park oval that has tripped up many jockeys in the final leg of the Triple Crown, the California-based Espinoza took a mount at the track Thursday. (He won the seventh race aboard Bob Baffert-trained Doctor Dempsey.)

He dismisses those who point out only two of his 3,117 wins have come at Belmont Park. Though he has been in this space before, he hasn't been this enthused about his circumstances in some time.

"I think that this is probably my last time to be in this position because you have to be realistic," Espinoza said. "I don't think in a million years it could happen a third time. That's why I'm just trying to have as much fun as I can and enjoy it; enjoy myself in life because life is too short."

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