California Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza will be gunning for the first Triple Crown win in 36 years at Saturday’s Belmont Stakes — and he’s doing so in considerable style.
Unassuming and personable in a customized Élevée navy suit, blue button down shirt and gold Gucci belt, the 42-year-old went largely unnoticed chatting with strangers in Rockefeller Center’s Pulse café earlier this week before a 90-minute workout at Equinox. Having thrown out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium Monday night, shared some air time with Michael Strahan on “Good Morning America” Tuesday and committed to a sit-down interview with David Letterman Wednesday night, Espinoza was back in double-session training mode, already anticipating where he might go for a run that afternoon. “I have to work out. This is not easy, let me tell you. I need to be fit. I have to be ready,” he said.
Accustomed to thundering out of the gate at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour on thoroughbreds that can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, Espinoza said, “When we ride, it’s all about our legs. We don’t touch the saddle or the stirrups. We only move our arms because if we move our bodies you can literally move the horse and you don’t want to do that at that high speed.
“California Chrome is the American people’s horse. It’s just crazy — suddenly overnight he’s like the star. A hundred million people know who California Chrome is and they’ve never even gone to the track or have seen him. Anywhere I go they are only talking about that horse, which is amazing,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s all about life. Just go out there and have fun. But for me it’s my job.”
One of 12 children born in Mexico on a dairy farm, he now calls Sierra Madre, Calif., home; his family will be among the expected 16 million TV viewers. “Belmont said it was tough to give me any tickets right now. One of my brothers, who was a jockey for a very long time, lives in New York and he will probably be there,” he said. (Trainer Art Sherman is practically next of kin given their hours training.)
Regardless of where Espinoza’s family tunes in Saturday, they will easily spot his purple and green racing silks — imprinted with “DAP,” an abbreviation for Dumb Ass Partners, what owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn were once called by skeptics for buying the thoroughbred. “When they were trying to put this business together, everybody was telling them they were dumb asses to waste their money on horses because horses are all about the rich,” Espinoza said. (Skechers clearly thought otherwise, having signed a sponsorship deal with California Chrome’s owners Tuesday.)
Partial as he is to Ferragamo and Gucci customized shoes, the 112-pound jockey said he doesn’t even think about Saturday’s potential winnings. Having galloped to earnings of nearly $6 million this year, Espinoza’s numerical concerns are weight-related. “On race days, I have to be weighed twice — before and after the race. Those days I weigh myself 20 times — minimum. I have to report my weight one hour before the race,” he said. “When I’m off, I run away from the scale. I don’t even want to see it.”
Should Espinoza make California Chrome the first horse since Affirmed to win the Triple Crown — which consists of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont — he will celebrate with a shopping spree on Fifth Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (where he and his friends “always go to shop”). And truth be told, he relates to “Project Runway.” “It reminds me of when I started to be a jockey — I wanted to beat everybody. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be the toughest rider that there is at that moment,” he said.
Opposed to the building momentum to change the Triple Crown’s demanding schedule to allow for more time between each race, Espinoza said that, if anything, competitors should be required to race all three, as was more the norm years ago when Triple Crown victories were not so few and far between. Nor does Espinoza think that the sport of kings is one only for the affluent. “A lot of people who aren’t involved think it’s all about older people and gambling, but it’s not. The younger people who go dress up, bring friends and have a good time, not necessarily to gamble. I never gamble even when I go to Vegas. I never gamble at all, but I will go,” he said. “It’s the same thing at the track. If you don’t gamble, maybe have a drink, just have fun, see the horses, everything is different. Learn something new. I’m all about learning something new.”
As for what he is most looking forward to Saturday, he said, “Safety for myself and the horse and everyone around. It’s so dangerous. Everyone wants to win but safety is the most important thing. And for California Chrome to run his race. If he’s good enough, he can win. If not, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
But once California Chrome is in the gate and Belmont track announcer Tom Durkin calls the start of the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, Espinoza said he will have one thought: “Gotta win — that’s it.”