2nd leg twice as nice for Espinoza

Dispelling Derby doubts, jockey can finally relax

May 19, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Jockey Victor Espinoza had heard the talk. He'd heard people questioning the ability of War Emblem, the horse he rode to victory at the Kentucky Derby. He heard the discussions about what they were going to do to beat him in the Preakness. And for two weeks, he hadn't slept well, excited and nervous all at the same time.

But when Espinoza walked War Emblem into the starting gate at Pimlico Race Course yesterday for the 127th running of the second leg of the Triple Crown, he was suddenly at ease.

"I wasn't worried about what I heard or what was being said," Espinoza said, after bringing War Emblem home to a three-quarters-of-a-length victory. "And when we broke from the gate, we were bumped a little bit, but I wasn't worried. I was focused on my horse."

Espinoza, who will turn 30 Thursday, rode in his first Triple Crown race here two years ago on Hugh Hefner and finished sixth. Since then, he has worked his way into the top 10 among money-winners, and when he won the Derby two weeks ago, it was almost unbelievable for the Mexico City native, who got his start on a farm near his hometown after he graduated from high school.

Yesterday, he rode his horse calmly into the winner's circle and helped position the blanket of black-eyed Susans over War Emblem's neck. Then he removed his helmet and turned to the camera, posing with a brilliant smile.

"When I was a kid, first starting as a jockey, I didn't know what to dream of," Espinoza said. "Now, it would mean so much to win the Triple Crown. But I am not thinking of that right now. I am only happy today because we won. And all I am thinking is of getting a good night's sleep tonight for the first time in two weeks."

But the questions kept coming. Everyone wanted to know the secret to the race, and he laughed, causing the lines around his sparkling brown eyes to crinkle.

"The secret," he said, "was winning."

Trainer Bob Baffert told him not to tell anyone anything about their strategy, told him not to give anything away about War Emblem.

"There are a lot of guys out there still trying to beat us," said Baffert, who earlier laughed and said, "If we'd lost, I was going to blame it on Victor."

But that was a joke. "Victor," said the trainer, "rode an awesome race."

To hear Espinoza tell it, he had little to do with it.

"My horse wanted to take the lead, and he took the lead," Espinoza said, as he headed away from the post-race interviews. "You have to be ready for whatever happens. But I left it all up to him. I knew other horses were around me, but I did not worry about them. I knew they might get up to him, but he would not let them get by.

"I am really so happy," Espinoza said. "I am happy for the way the race went. And it means a lot, especially because a lot of people questioned my horse. I think today, we proved what kind of horse my horse is."

Now, if Espinoza and War Emblem can prove it just one more time. But that is for another day. Yesterday, Espinoza was happy enough accepting the cheers that came to him as he climbed the steps toward the jockeys' room.

He raised his hand, waved and disappeared.

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