Sunday, May 05, 2002

Espinoza wins in second Derby start

AP Sports Writer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Victor Espinoza needed only two starts to secure his spot in the Kentucky Derby record book.

        A year after riding in his first Derby, Espinoza guided 20-1 shot War Emblem to a stunning gate-to-wire victory Saturday in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

        “I had a dream I won today,” said a jubilant Espinoza, who guided Congaree to a third-place finish in 2001. “I just felt lucky this morning.”

        The ride was Espinoza's first aboard the dark bay son of Our Emblem. He jumped into the lead early and was never really challenged in his four-length victory over Proud Citizen.

        Espinoza, a 29-year-old Mexico City native, got a call from trainer Bob Baffert at 8 Saturday morning to talk about War Emblem. Espinoza needed all the information he could get.

        “This was like my first blind date,” he said. “I'd never seen the horse before” in person.

        He had watched him on TV working out, and he was very impressed.

        “No horse worked better than my horse, and that made me confident I could come here and win the race,” he said.

        As the colt drew away over the final furlong and crossed the wire, Espinoza stood straight up in the saddle and thrust his arm skyward.

        “I wasn't worried because I have good balance,” he said with a grin. “I've trained myself to do that.”

        In the winner's circle, Espinoza hadn't even dismounted before getting a bear hug from the owner, Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman, and a double thumbs-up from Baffert.

        “I wasn't sure I'd ever get down off the horse,” he said.

        Baffert said he was impressed by Espinoza's patience in such a pressure-filled situation.

        “I told him, 'Don't panic. Sit on him as long as you can. Wait, wait, wait.' And he just sat quiet. For him to sit cool as long as he did showed so much poise,” Baffert said.

        Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens needed four starts to earn his first of three Derby victories. Jerry Bailey, another Hall of Famer, won for the first time in his sixth start, while Pat Day toiled for a decade before reaching the winner's circle.

        All three rode also-rans Saturday.

        “To do this in only my second time here, ... I feel very lucky,” Espinoza said. “I feel like I'm sleeping.”

        Espinoza got his start riding on a farm outside Mexico City just after high school. He won his first race at the Hippodromo de las Americas in Mexico City in 1992 and came to the United States soon after.

        He learned the game quickly, becoming the leading rider at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., 1996 and 1997.

        Three years later, Espinoza was the leading rider at Hollywood Park and DelMar, getting his first Triple Crown start in the 2000 Preakness aboard Hugh Hefner.

        That year he also earned the biggest victory of his young career aboard 55-1 shot Spain in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and finished the year ranked seventh nationally with more than $13.3 million in purse earnings.

        Last year, Espinoza rode winners of more than $10.3 million to finish 11th in the nation. He also got his first taste of the Kentucky Derby aboard Congaree.

        That trip whetted his appetite for another successful run under the twin spires at Churchill Downs.

        “You just can't explain to the public or anybody how it feels to win the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “There's no way to describe just how good it feels.”


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