Cool horse, chill rider. Together they could win “Dancing With the Stars.”
Instead, they are poised to win a Triple Crown, an even rarer occurrence. You have a World Series winner every year, and a World Cup champion every four years. But pretty much no one under 45 knows what a Triple Crown victory looks like.
Now we have this horse that wins in all kinds of ways, driven by a guy so freakishly relaxed that he prepares for big races by taking a nap.
You start to think that if American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza can’t win a Triple Crown, who can?
The plot line of late is that the big purses and growing prestige of the Preakness and Belmont stakes make it virtually impossible to win a Triple Crown. More money means more fresh legs. Besides, horses are bred for speed these days, not endurance. Saturday’s Belmont also happens to be the longest of the three races, on an exhausting sandy track that rain could turn to cake mix.
Running the 1 1/2-mile Belmont in this stuff is like ending your grueling round of golf with a 700-yard par five. In ski boots.
To win the Triple Crown in 1978, Affirmed had to beat Alydar three times, the Joe Frazier to his Muhammad Ali. American Pharoah is racing against expectations and that kernel of doubt that gets inside your head: Is a Triple Crown even possible anymore? Like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.
Listen, if you’re fond of this jewel of a sport, pull for American Pharoah on Saturday. For 15 minutes, a horse will be the most famous athlete in America. And his Mexican-born pilot, Espinoza, will be on top of the world.
You can’t help but note the distinct paths the two took to get there. American Pharoah is a silver spoon youngster, bred for greatness. Espinoza is one of 12 kids raised on a dairy farm near Mexico City.
“For me, it’s what I had to do to survive,” Espinoza said before leaving for New York this week. “This is what I do.”
He was so poor when he first started that he lived in a tack room at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco, trainer Steve Specht recalls.
“He’s always ridden hard. When he first started, he was fearless but not reckless,” Specht said. “He’d ride a horse through a hole you couldn’t drive a nail through. You’d hold your breath.”
Since then, Espinoza has made about $18 million in the sport and ranks 19th in all-time earnings. To this day, he insists he has no great passion for riding these sweat-soaked Maseratis. Just a job, he says.
“I call bull on that,” friend and rival Gary Stevens said. “I’ve seen that look in his eyes when he wins.”
At 43, Espinoza races four days a week at Santa Anita, also working out twice a day — weights in the morning, running the hills just before dusk.
Unmarried and with no kids, he tithes to City of Hope and is out and about frequently in the L.A. sports scene. A few weeks ago, he threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game; on Friday, he hung out with the Angels. He also turns out for the Ducks and the Kings, drawn, he says, by hockey’s buzzy and ferocious crowds.
The buzziest crowd of the year, though, will probably be a throng of 90,000 in New York on Saturday, hoping to see history made.
“I have no pressure right now,” he said. “I treat it like I do all races. I’ve been there.”
Indeed, Espinoza has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before, in 2002 aboard War Emblem (finished eighth in the Belmont) and last year on California Chrome (finished fourth).
If there are nerves, and there have to be, they are kept well below the surface.
Stevens, who also will ride Saturday, recalls how he and Espinoza shared a locker in the crowded jockeys room at this year’s Kentucky Derby. About 90 minutes before the race, Espinoza told Stevens he was going to take a nap.
“Go ahead,” Stevens said. “I’ll wake you.”
Skeptical of that, Espinoza skipped the nap.
Look, Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl. Ernie Banks never even got to a postseason, nor did Joe Torre as a player. Now we’re about to see, with beery and bated breath, whether the 5-foot-2 Espinoza can seize what has become sport’s biggest challenge, or simply come close again.
Me, I’ll bet him to win.