Victor Espinoza aboard California Chrome goes around the first turn after winning the 139th Preakness Stakesat Pimlico Race Course. (USA TODAY Sports: Winslow Townson)
NEW YORK — As the jockey of Triple Crown contender California Chrome, Victor Espinoza already knows he is on the ride of his life.
One triumphant lap around the enormous Belmont Park track in New York on Saturday is all that stands between him and a place in racing folklore.
If California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, the 42-year-old Espinoza will be immortalized along with his mount as the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
But for the quietly-spoken Mexican, the final 1 1/2-miles (2,400 meters) ahead of him pales in comparison to the long journey he traveled just to get there.
The son of a Mexican goat farmer, Espinoza was terrified of horses when he was a young child but learnt to ride on a donkey, which, purely by coincidence, is the emblem on California Chrome’s racing silks.
He soon graduated to riding horses and when he was a teenager, got himself a fake ID to get a job as a bus driver in Mexico City.
To make ends meet, he took out a jockey’s license and began racing horses on weekends. He proved a natural in the saddle, winning his first ever race and suddenly he was off and running.
In 1993, he moved to California and slowly worked his way up through the riding ranks.
In 2000, he got his first breakthrough when he won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on the filly Spain, a 55-1 longshot, then two years later he was thrust into the racing spotlight when he won the Kentucky Derby on War Emblem.
“Driving a bus in easy, you’re stuck in traffic, you just have to be patient and take your time,” Espinoza recalled.
“The Kentucky Derby is a lot harder because you have to react quick and get away from the traffic as soon as possible. It’s a lot more fun though.”
Espinoza said he had not even heard of the Triple Crown - which incorporates the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes - before he moved to the United States but it quickly became the center of his universe when he also won the middle jewel on War Emblem.
But their chances of completing the Triple Crown ended as soon as the Belmont Stakes started when War Emblem stumbled out of the gates and nearly fell and finished well back.
Espinoza’s star began to fade and he slowly began losing interest in the sport. He even considered quitting until his girlfriend convinced him to keep trying, saying that his luck would change as soon as he found that one great horse.
Last year, Espinoza finally caught his first glimpse of the horse he had been waiting for when he spotted California Chrome working out.
California Chrome already had a rider but things were not going as well as his owners had hoped. He won just two of his first six starts so the connections decided to make a change.
Espinoza got the call to ride the colt and the pair formed an instant bond, winning their first four races together, including the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, by a combined margin of more than 24 lengths.
They went to the Kentucky Derby as favorites and won easily, then did the same at the Preakness, and now sit on the cusp of history.
“I’m more confident this time,” said Espinoza. “There is always a lot of pressure when you’re on the favorite but I believe in this horse and myself.
“Before we go to the gate, I like to let him play a bit and do his own thing but about a minute before we go into the gate, it’s a different story.
“I let him know that I’m the boss and I’m in control and he has to listen to me because it’s time to go to work and time to perform.”