Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

‘Like you were flying’: Victor Espinoza talks American Pharoah, California Chrome and riding greats

Geoffrey Riddle interviews jockey Victor Espinoza, who discusses his sudden celebrity, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and near-miss California Chrome.
Jockey Victor Espinoza shown in October at the Breeders' Cup Classic. Michael Reaves / Getty Images / October 29, 2015
Jockey Victor Espinoza shown in October at the Breeders' Cup Classic. Michael Reaves / Getty Images / October 29, 2015

Victor Espinoza is eyeing a break. The Mexican rider has experienced a whirlwind two seasons in which California Chrome and American Pharoah have carried him to five wins in the six Triple Crown races staged in America in that time.

Due to his achievements in the saddle his star burns so brightly that he has become a regular on national US television.

There was the mini motorbike riding on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show. Paired with Karina Smirnoff, a dancer five inches taller than him, Espinoza was the first jockey to take part in Dancing With The Stars, a show from which he was unceremoniously booted off after a fortnight.

His latest foray in to the entertainment limelight was to act in a shoot to promote Ride Along 2, a video that included comedian Kevin Hart, rapper and actor Ice Cube and the Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The day before we met he was in Paris buying a coat before he came to London for a dinner in Mayfair. In his acceptance speech at the Longines World’s Best Racehorse awards at Claridge’s Hotel in London he caused a stir when he thanked those at the gala lunch for hosting him ... in Paris.

Read more: Geoffrey Riddle’s review of the year in horse racing for 2015

Afterwards he has faced a carnival of interviews after American Pharoah was named the best horse on the planet. In each one there is that bemused, but polite smile across the 43-year-old jockey’s face.

“I don’t know where I am sometimes,” he says. “I travel so much though that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I sleep on planes. I catch sleep in cars. It’s not easy, but you get used to it.

“Even on my days off I have a full schedule. Dancing With The Stars was very challenging. Rehearsals were tough because they were about seven to eight hours a day. The good thing is that I didn’t have to work out or lose weight as I’m in top shape. It was incredible how much weight I lost and if I hadn’t left the show when I did I might have looked anorexic.

“It is just a great thing that I even have time to sleep. I can now settle down just a little bit. I am still doing a lot of things outside the racetrack still. I think it will go on for one more year and then I can probably take a little break. I need it. Maybe a few months off to relax. Retirement will be a day-by-day thing. I have no plans but one day I will just wake up and say, ‘that’s it, I’m done’.”

Now that American Pharoah is retired, Espinoza’s main focus is to get California Chrome across the wire in the Dubai World Cup at Meydan.

Last year Espinoza chased a furious pace in the world’s most valuable race and California Chrome was the only prominent runner to hold his position as Prince Bishop swept past to cause a huge upset.

California Chrome travelled two metres further than the winner and all things being equal he holds a serious chance of making good that defeat.

Since March, California Chrome has raced just once after his trip to Royal Ascot was aborted due to a last-minute injury.

Steve Coburn, the part owner with the ten-gallon hat notorious for his outburst after his pride and joy lost the Belmont Stakes, has been bought out by Taylor Made Farms, and the chestnut colt made a successful comeback in the Grade Two San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita 11 days ago.

“It was a really impressive performance,” Espinoza says.

“The first time I worked him before I was not really impressed. He didn’t feel like he was back. They shipped him to Santa Anita though and then he worked 1 minute, 10 seconds [over 1,200 metres] before the race and that was it. I changed my mind about him then and it made a big difference. He ran a nice race, especially after such a long time off.

“I am curious about how he is going to run his next race. I know he has been there before, you never know with second races.”

Immediately after the San Pasqual, majority owner Perry Martin suggested that California Chrome would run twice in Dubai before the World Cup. Art Sherman said last week that one prep run would be enough to get California Chrome spot on and Espinoza agrees that the third round of the Al Maktoum Challenge on March 5 will be enough to have the son of Lucky Pulpit primed for World Cup night. California Chrome ships out for Dubai on Thursday.

“Horses are not machines,” he says. “You have to do what the horses want to do. Sometimes owners make plans by themselves. Jockeys and trainers always think about the horse.

“I believe it will be too much for him to run twice before the World Cup. One race will be enough, just a small prep on Super Saturday.

“It was the same with American Pharoah. They wanted to run him in the Travers, but it was the wrong thing to do. Owners will not think they are wrong until the horse runs. Two times and we will be in trouble for the World Cup.”

Espinoza will ride California Chrome on both starts in Dubai and has pledged to spend around five days relaxing in the UAE before each race.

For a man who has been perched in the saddle on top of two of America’s best horses for a generation, the obvious question to ask is which one is better.

Espinoza smiles again, thinks about the question and then sprays a smoke screen.

“I can never compare one horse to another,” he says.

“They are like humans, they are all different. They always have a weakness when it comes to racing. For me I always discover a horse’s weakness and always hope that my enemies do not find it out.

“With Pharoah it was always a challenge to come out of the gate. He always moved around as soon as he walked in. If I missed the break I would have been in trouble. I was lucky enough that we never had that bad experience.”

As Espinoza continues to talk his focus becomes ever tighter on American Pharoah until at last we find out what made the first horse to win the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic so good.

“He just had the speed that other horses don’t have,” he says.

“I don’t know how he could run that fast. When I was on his back, it did not feel fast. It was like slow motion and then you would look back and you would be 15 lengths clear.

“The Kentucky Derby is the only race I will never forget. I knew that if I could win the Kentucky Derby the other two races were going to be cruise control. I knew if I could win that Kentucky Derby we had a Triple Crown winner. It didn’t feel like you were riding, you felt like you were flying.”

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Updated: January 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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