42-YEAR-OLD MEXICO CITY NATIVE WON LAST YEAR WITH CALIFORNIA CHROME, AND WITH THREE OVERALL DERBY TROPHIES, APPEARS DESTINED FOR RACING’S HALL OF FAME
ARCADIA, Calif. (May 4, 2015)–A bus driver 25 years ago in his native Mexico City, jockey Victor Espinoza returned to Santa Anita on Sunday perched firmly atop the racing world following his win in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby aboard favored American Pharoah. A winner of last year’s Run for the Roses with California Chrome, Espinoza, 42, notched his third overall win in America’s biggest race and appears to be a cinch to be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in the not-too-distant future.
No stranger to racing’s peaks and valleys, Espinoza tasted defeat aboard favored Stellar Wind in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, but true to his credo, marshalled on with a positive attitude on Derby Day and he sat down for a question and answer session following the races at Santa Anita on Sunday.
Q. How much sleep did you get last night and when did you get back to L.A.?
“None. Just like last year, I stopped at a few places and then I went straight to the airport. I got into LAX at about 10:30 this morning. It’s my job. When my name is in the program and I’m named to ride horses, people expect me to be here and to ride.” (Espinoza won with his first mount on Sunday, a maiden filly trained by John Shirreffs named Two Taps).
Q. You had a big disappointment with Stellar Wind in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. It looked like she had a rough trip?
“I was very disappointed with the way she ran. I thought she was going to run big. As soon as she came out of the gate, it was just not her. We had a little bit of trouble in the first turn butnot too bad. She still ran fourth, but I had to ride her very hard the last part…Friday was just a rough day, but I had to rest up Friday night, try to forget about it and recover for the next day.”
Q. You’ve won a lot of big races with Bob Baffert, including the Derby 13 years ago. Did he seem more nervous than usual to you this week?
“He was really nervous at the draw. I was there and it was like torture. I think American Pharoah could’ve won from anywhere, but you just don’t want the rail in the Derby with 20 horses…It got so late with the rail still available that it was just terrible in there…I can’t take it and I looked at Bob and he couldn’t even talk and I was getting sick. For me, that was the worst moment ever when the rail was still available. There was more pressure at the draw than there was during the race.”
Q. It’s always crazy on Derby Day and this year, maybe even more so with a record crowd of more than 170,000 people. What was it like?
“My biggest concern was how American Pharoah would warm up and he warmed up excellent going to the gate. We stayed a little bit longer in the paddock, I don’t know why so I went and talked to Baffert and I talked to (owner, Ahmed) Zayat a little bit. He was so nervous. I told him, ‘You know what Mr. Zayat, just go up in the grandstand and enjoy the show, I’ll take care of the rest.’ He said ‘Thank you, Victor.’ Then I talked some more with Baffert about how we thought the race was going to be run.”
Q. You had a great post in the Derby, but American Pharoah lost a lot of ground. Did that concern you as the race was being run?
“No, not at all. When I got the number 18, I knew that we were going to lose a little ground there, but even if we lost a few lengths on both turns, I felt like I was on the best horse and it wasn’t going to matter…With American Pharoah, I’m not real concerned about losing ground. I just want him to run his race.”
Q. Gary Stevens packed you pretty wide with Firing Line turning for home. At that point, you got busy right handed. Tell us about the stretch run.
“Turning for home, I knew Gary was going to start drifting out, so I didn’t want to get too close to him. I purposely took ‘Pharoah’ a little bit further out so we didn’t lose our momentum. I have so much respect for Gary Stevens. He’s tough to get by, believe me. Turning for home, I thought I had him whenever I wanted him. I thought at the eighth pole, once my horse puts his head in front, the Derby’s over, but it wasn’t over. He made my horse run hard right to the end.”
Q. American Pharoah has rated well in his last two races. Can you win on the lead in the Preakness if you need to?
“Absolutely. Most his races, he’s been on the lead, but I knew with the big field in the Derby, it would be very tough to go right to the lead and win, but he’s proven he can do that, no problem.”
Q. Are you ready to say that American Pharoah might be the best horse you’ve ever ridden?
“They’re all different. They are all different horses. I cannot say which one would be better. I never compare which horse I’ve ridden is the best, they’re all special to me. I mean, California Chrome is my boy, you know what I mean? He carried me through last year and now American Pharoah, he’s special to me.”
Q. War Emblem, California Chrome and American Pharoah. With three Derby wins, it looks like you’re a cinch to get into the Hall of Fame pretty soon. Have you thought about that?
“No, not at all. I never think about the Hall of Fame. My focus is just winning…I never thought I’d be in the Hall of Fame you know? If I get in there, it’s just an extra thing that I don’t have to worry about. Safety is the most important thing to me right now for the rest of my career. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve always been able to win races. Winning races for me, it’s always been just a matter of time because I know I can do it. Now, I need to ride smart and stay healthy, that’s the most important thing.”
Q. Yesterday, you said you were the luckiest Mexican on earth. Are you planning a trip to Las Vegas soon?
“I wish I had time, because my luck is good right now. But there’s one thing, when I go to Vegas, I don’t gamble. I’ll go to the casinos, but I’ve never gambled in my entire life.”
Espinoza, who is single, broke his maiden in 1992 in Mexico City and will turn 43 on May 23.