Last year aboard American Pharaoh, Victor Espinoza rode the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years and he may make horse racing history again at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
With the help of Whitmore, a thoroughbred he “met” for the first time Monday, Espinoza will be gunning to be the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three years in a row. In addition to last year’s American Pharaoh win, Espinoza raced to a Kentucky Derby win in 2014 on California Chrome and further back in 2002 on War Emblem.
Having attended this week’s opening of the American Pharaoh exhibition at the Kentucky Derby Museum, Espinoza said, “I’m excited to be back. I cannot believe it’s already been a year. Time goes by fast. That’s what happens when I’m having fun. It feels like it just happened.”
The California-based jockey used the trip to Louisville, Ky., to also meet Whitmore’s trainer Ron Moquett for the first time. Their partnership is so fresh that he doesn’t know what color silks he will be wearing Saturday. “I’m with a different horse and a different team. But I always think that no matter what happens, I will have a chance to win the Kentucky Derby as long as I have a horse in the race,” Espinoza said. “Physically, my training is exactly the same. But obviously this race is different. The horse that I’m riding is not the favorite. It’s just a regular horse compared to the last two that I rode.
“But no matter what horse that I ride in the Kentucky Derby, it is always fun to be part of it. Everybody is excited to be here,” he said. “Even though Churchill Downs is not so great. Forget about it — the track is just not my favorite. It’s nothing really special except for the Kentucky Derby — only that day.”
More than 16 million tuned in to catch last year’s running at Churchill Downs, which is the first leg in the Triple Crown followed by the Preakness Stakes and then the Belmont Stakes. “After this one, we will know what will be the best one for the next two. This may be the only serious race they are going to have,” Espinoza said. “For me, what’s interesting is that nobody knows who is going to be the champion for this year. There are 20 horses in the field, everybody’s excited and we all think that we have a chance to win.”
Those odds alone are worth considering, according to Espinoza, the 43-year-old who learned to ride growing up in Mexico. “Think about it. They have bred tons and tons of horses just for this race. And there are only 20 that can make it,” he said.
En route to the starting gate, Espinoza drowns out the 50,000 fans. “I really don’t hear anything. I don’t know about the other jockeys. I’m more focused on the horse. I want everything to go perfect regardless of what that is,” he said. “I want the horse that I ride to be safe and to be happy. That’s why I don’t hear anything from the crowd or pay any attention to the crowd. Unless I win, then everything is different because I have to share all of the excitement with all of the public and everyone who is watching.”
Camaraderie is central to his pre-race strategy before the race in the jockey room. “I absolutely talk to everyone. Normally, I never talk about horses,” Espinoza said. “I go to the jockey room just to mess around with them, to joke around and to talk about other things. I’m just trying to make it fun in there. A lot of the other jockeys probably don’t like that because they have a lot of pressure. They want to be so focused. That race, for them, is basically the race of their lives, or some of it. You can see in their faces they are nervous and tense. You can’t really talk normally with them. Me, I just come in there, joking around, asking everybody, ‘How they’re doing?’”
Espinoza continued, “Basically, I’m trying to encourage everybody. Don’t be so serious — hey, this is fun. Enjoy your life. Maybe you will never come back or have a horse in the derby again. You’re going to have a good experience.”
Accustomed to riding horses at speeds up to 60 mph, Espinoza said, “Yeah, it’s pretty fast especially when there are 20 horses around you. It’s dangerous, too.” The fact that Whitmore finished third in his last race, despite getting into trouble appealed to Espinoza. “He’s a little bit aggressive. No matter what happens, he still likes to run. A lot of horses get into a little bit of trouble and that’s it. They don’t go forward. “
Although he never tracks the distance, Espinoza himself runs two or three times a week, lifts weights on the other days and gives himself one day of rest. He will train for 10 days straight in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. Friday will be a day to relax in order to have all his energy back for Saturday’s showdown. Espinoza will fly back to California today for Santa Anita Park’s opening day before taking a red-eye flight Thursday night to Kentucky. He has no pre-race traditions. “No, no, no — I’ve never been a superstitious guy, but I’m a religious guy so I always pray for safety. Safety is the most important thing in life,” he said. “There are too many days that I can’t forget — too many memories. It’s just an incredible one that I have. But no matter what happens, whatever I do, safety is number-one for me because life is too short. With life, who knows, it doesn’t matter what we do, what I do or what is to become. I feel that I am here just part time like everybody else.”
Fun as it was to compete on “Dancing With the Stars,” Espinoza said he is now focused on the derby. After that, he will decide on what’s next on his to-do list, which includes opportunities for a documentary, TV and other projects. I want to do things that will be fun and for entertainment. I feel that I’m here to entertain my fans.
With sponsorships from Monster Energy and Jetsmart, Espinoza is entertaining other offers. “Somehow when I don’t think about sponsors, they all want to sponsor me but that’s a good thing,” he said.
Designer companies have been e-mailing requests as well, but he is too focused on racing to remember their names. “I wanted to do just one thing and now I have a million things to do,” Espinoza said. “But it’s fun. Fashion is a beautiful thing. I am really into fashion. Every day I wonder, ‘What should I wear?’ I am really interested watching people in the street. I am really curious about what people wear. I snoop around. I’m curious.”
With “just way too many” clothes and shoes, Espinoza is a clothes horse. He also likes to see women in beautiful dresses, purses and shoes. A “Project Runway” fan, and online fashion show viewer, the Californian said he hits the stores in Beverly Hills and New York to see “what’s coming up, what’s the new fashion for guys and females, too — younger, older, it doesn’t matter. I like to track the new things and what’s coming up.”
Off-the-track he likes to shop, with shoes from Gucci and Ferragamo being his most recent purchases. “I pretty much walk into every store you can imagine. If I like it, and it’s my size, I will buy it.”
The diet he follows to maintain his 112-lb. racing weight would surprise most fans. “For anyone who is trying to lose weight, I think just eat everything a little bit, just not much and always healthy. It is the most difficult thing to lose one pound. To gain one pound happens overnight, but to lose that pound is like, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s a nightmare.’”
He added, “If you’re weak, you’re not going to dominate the horses. I always say riding horses is like the movie ‘Avatar.’ You have to have one connection, one brain. At 1,500 or 2,000 lbs., the horses are so powerful. You have to connect to their brains.”
As for what he will do if he wins Saturday, Espinoza said, “Like every year, I will go out and stay up all night. I don’t drink but I like to go out and eat as much as I can that day. Because I have a day to recover.”