BALTIMORE -- Long before he became America's jockey of the moment, the man who holds the reins on horse racing's latest hope for the Triple Crown, Victor Espinoza drove a bus.
Wait a minute. Back up. It wasn't just a bus. Espinoza, the jockey for Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, drove a bus in Mexico City, long rated one of the most dangerous cities in the world for motorists. The World Health Organization lists traffic accidents as the No. 1 killer in Mexico, and in Mexico City a motorist is killed or injured every hour.
Los Angeles Times writer Richard Faussett described Mexico City traffic as "a seemingly infinite maze of daredevils and incompetents, of axle-bending potholes and curb-hugging taco stands, of signless seven-way intersections and baffling multidirectional traffic circles, of tamale vendors on tricycles and cops hungry for bribe money."
And Espinoza was driving a bus right in the middle of it at age 17. No wonder starting from the No. 5 post in a 19-horse Kentucky Derby field was no problem for Espinoza. Compared to Mexico City, the Derby probably felt like Interstate 70 through Kansas.
"It's a lot easier riding horses than driving in that traffic in Mexico City," Espinoza said. "It was a hard life for a while."
Nothing has come easy for Espinoza, who worked long hours on farms in Mexico, planting crops and milking cows. He scraped up enough to go to jockey school, and scraped to make it in Mexico City before moving to northern California in 1993. Once in the U.S., he was so determined to stick it out that he wouldn't allow himself to watch Spanish-language television or listen to his native tongue on the radio, despite the loneliness of those days.
From there to here -- a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey with the 3-5 favorite in the Preakness Stakes and a colt that has won five races in a row without being seriously threatened -- is a journey Espinoza said has left him reeling.
"It's an amazing feeling, to win two Kentucky Derbies," he said. "I never thought in a million years I'd ever win one Kentucky Derby when I started my career. I felt we had a lot of pressure on us, going into the Derby as the favorite. But I told [California Chrome trainer] Art [Sherman] after the race, now the pressure is really going to be on."
Espinoza knows he's getting a critical look from Sherman every time he rides, because the 77-year-old trainer is a former jockey himself. But he hand-picked Espinoza to ride his prized 3-year-old, even if he did say he felt like taking over in the final 75 yards once the Derby looked to be in the bag.
"I've known Victor a long time," Sherman said. "He rode a lot of winners for me in northern California where I trained for a lot of years. I knew he had a lot of talent. We needed to make a change at one time. I said I got the perfect jockey for this race, too. So here we are. He fits him like a glove. He knows him. He knows where to position the horse. It means a lot. It's a rapport between rider and horse, it really is."
If Sherman hand-picked Espinoza, the jockey picked out the horse early on. He said when he first saw the colt at Del Mar race course in California, "It was like when a beautiful woman walks in the room." So he was surprised when some time later, his agent told him the match was going to happen.
So far, it has been a storybook ride for Espinoza, who has never lost on the colt.
"I don't know how good this horse is," he said. "I've never had a chance to ride him hard all the way to the end."
Certainly that was the case in the Kentucky Derby, when he cruised through easy early fractions and wasn't all-out at the wire after pulling away by five lengths in midstretch.
But starting with this race, there's more pressure on Espinoza. He has been here before. He won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with War Emblem, like so many others, falling short in the Belmont Stakes.
Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said this week Espinoza will face a more difficult tactical race Saturday than he wound up having in the Derby, because of the presence of more early speed.
"With all the outside speed, you know, to his right, I think Victor might have to use him a little bit more for longer periods just to get his position," Bailey said. "But if he can do kind of the same thing he did at Churchill Downs and works out the same trip, I don't see any reason why he can't win again."
At 41, Espinoza is no longer one of the young guys. He has won more than 3,000 races, ridden for some of the top trainers and has been in the top 10 in earnings nationally five times since 2000, though he hasn't done it since 2008. That figures to change this year.
He also has embraced a cause. After winning the Derby, he became emotional talking about his decision to donate 10 percent of his winning share to pediatric cancer research, particular the City of Hope research center in southern California.
"One day I went to visit some kids in the hospital who had cancer and it was heartbreaking," he said. "I broke down and cried seeing all these young kids who can't have the life we have. It changed my life seeing 6- and 8- and 10-year-olds sick with cancer like that. I just hope with the money I earned, I can make a difference in at least one of those kids' lives."
It's a long way from driving a bus in Mexico City. And Espinoza appreciates it.
"It's crazy," he said. "You can never predict the future. When I came here I didn't even speak English. Now I'm talking again about winning the Kentucky Derby and trying to win the Preakness. For me, it's been amazing."
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky. Eric Crawford writes for WDRB.
First Published May 15, 2014 11:04 PM