Shortly after riding California Chrome to victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby, jockey Victor Espinoza ran into Bob Baffert, the trainer who put Espinoza on 2002 Derby winner War Emblem more than a decade before.
“Congratulations, Victor,” Baffert said. “That was amazing.”
“Thanks, Bob,” Espinoza said.
“Next year,” Baffert joked, pointing at the jockey, “You and me.”
“OK,” Espinoza said. “I’m ready for it.”
A year later, Espinoza is once again aboard the favorite, riding Baffert-trained American Pharoah in Saturday’s 141st Kentucky Derby.
But it was only by chance that the 42-year-old Espinoza wound up on the colt who became the darling of this year’s pre-Derby chatter.
“Who thought we could be here in this situation?” Espinoza said.
American Pharoah finished fifth in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race at Del Mar under jockey Martin Garcia, and Baffert was unsure whether he would enter the colt in last September’s Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. When he made a late decision to do so, Garcia was already committed to another mount, Baffert said. Another top jockey, Rafael Bejarano, also was unavailable.
So Baffert turned to Espinoza.
“I told his agent, ‘I’m thinking of running a horse who was sort of a problem child,’” Baffert said. “War Emblem was a problem child. [Victor’s] pretty good with those problem-child horses.”
Espinoza rode American Pharoah to victory at Del Mar — “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the real deal,’” Espinoza said — and then three more, including one by eight lengths at the $1-million Arkansas Derby.
So, just as he did last year, Espinoza is riding the horse to beat in the 1 1/4-mile Run for the Roses.
Derby favorites appeared jinxed from 1980 to 1999, when none won. But 54 favorites have claimed victories in 140 races, including Orb in 2013 and California Chrome last year.
Baffert acknowledges that American Pharoah has yet to be severely tested. He is expected to receive a challenge from undefeated barnmate Dortmund, the $1-million Santa Anita Derby winner who is also trained by Baffert.
“Dortmund goes over this track much better than Santa Anita,” Baffert said.
Espinoza, in his seventh Derby, is prepared for any challenge after winning last year.
“He’s a cool customer,” three-time Derby winning jockey Gary Stevens said of Espinoza. “He’s not fazed by the atmosphere.”
Stevens, who will be aboard 12-1 shot Firing Line, is among those trying to prevent Espinoza from becoming one of the few to win consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
Calvin Borel was the last one, riding longshot Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010. Borel was scheduled to be aboard El Kabeir, who was scratched Friday after a deadline that would have allowed for an alternate entry.
On Thursday, after Stanford scratched and Frammento was added, American Pharoah’s starting position moved from 18th, which has produced only one Derby winner, to No. 17, which has produced none. El Kabeir’s scratch from the No. 7 post enabled horses 1 through 6 to move one spot away from the rail.
American Pharoah moved to No. 16, with 14 horses to his left after International Star scratched on Saturday. International Star had arrived at Churchill Downs as the leader in the standings, but was scratched because of a quarter crack in his hoof.
“It’s a devastating blow to come this far,” owner Ken Ramsey said. “I thought I had a decent shot at winning the race. But it happened to A.P. Indy and a lot of other horses before.”
Baffert had said American Pharaoh’s initial starting post at No. 18 would not be an issue against one of the deepest and most talented fields in years.
Ocho Ocho Ocho and Todd Pletcher-trained Carpe Diem and Materiality are in the first three starting spots.
“This is going to be a very fast pace,” Stevens said.
Firing Line is considered a threat because of his close losses to Dortmund in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita and the Los Alamitos Derby. Stevens’ experience also figures in the equation.
“It’s going to be ugly the first sixteenth of a mile,” he said, noting the expected rush by the field to avoid potential trouble, “but it’s going to be fun.”
Highly regarded Upstart was to start just to the right of American Pharoah. Three spots to his left will be Frosted, winner of the Wood Memorial.
Baffert’s dream scenario is to see American Pharoah and Dortmund in front as they come out of the final turn.
“I just hope they get a clear shot,” he said.
Baffert is not worried about Espinoza, who rode Baffert-trained Sinister Minister in the 2006 Kentucky Derby and Midnight Interlude in the 2011 race.
“He’s been here at the big dance,” Baffert said. “It’s up to him. I can’t really tell him anything.”
Espinoza is hoping for another smooth ride aboard American Pharoah, but he is prepared for the unexpected.
“Nothing is easy in the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “It’s just a matter of if he can run his race.”