The “Triple Crown Celebration With Victor Espinoza” Aug. 3 at Steiner Sports Marketing in New Rochelle was a revelation both for what we amateurs learned about horses and horse racing and the frankness with which Espinoza discussed these subjects.
Looking natty in a gray suit and sky-blue tie, the Mexican-born Espinoza – who guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown in 37 years, then capped it with a resounding win in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park Aug. 2 – was both humble and humorous as he reflected on a career of more than 3,000 victories. (He doesn’t know the exact number.) He had been to the Triple Crown dance before – aboard War Emblem, with AP trainer Bob Baffert in 2002; and then with California Chrome just last year. Or so Fox 5 New York sportscaster Tina Cervasio – the evening’s expert interviewer – reminded him.
“And I failed,” Espinoza countered.
Ah but then came the Pharoah – whose stride is even wider than that of his great-great-great-grandfather, Secretariat. What distinguishes him from the rest?
“He’s faster than all of them,” Espinoza quipped to some 50 admirers and journalists who gathered in the sleek, memorabilia-studded offices of Steiner Sports. Indeed, Espinoza said what he has often observed before: The Pharoah is so effortlessly fast that riding him is like moving in slow motion. Only when Espinoza looks over his shoulder does he realize how far back the pack is.
Success, like hindsight, is 20/20. You think that the end mirrors the beginning. But that is not always the case. Espinoza was upfront about his relationship with Baffert, for whom he used to ride all the time. Then came a two-year falling out. “He wanted me to ride a certain way,” Espinoza said.
But at last year’s Kentucky Derby, Baffert said to him, “You and me, next year.”
“What are the odds of that?” Espinoza added.
His start with the Pharoah would’ve suggested that the odds weren’t good. Though AP now has a reputation of being “nicer than a little pony,” he was a volatile 2-year-old – getting loose, going crazy in the gate, which is dangerous for all members of the team.
But Espinoza looks at a horse the way he looks at a woman – top to bottom, side to side. (Good to know, Victor.) Evidently, he liked what he saw in the gorgeous Pharoah, whose famously bobbed tail – Espinoza doesn’t know if another horse chewed off a clump of it – is now growing back.
A horse, he said, is also like a car. Move right and the horse turns right. Draw back and the horse pulls up. You measure the horse’s strength from the top of the neck to the base, or withers, Espinoza said. You can feel it as you take the reins. The first time Espinoza sat on AP, he realized he had one powerful animal beneath him. Out on the track, the Pharoah put his neck out. “Oh, oh, that’s not good,” Espinoza remembered thinking. AP was testing him, and Espinoza took a page from the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu (though he may not have realized it): “Yield and overcome.”
Espinoza said he dropped the reins. And the Pharoah calmed down.
Since then, horse and rider have been of one mind, which is what Espinoza said needs to happen. But it has not been easy. The Pharoah came from behind in a crowded field to take the Kentucky Derby. Then came the monsoon that was the Preakness.
“I’m from Mexico City, where it doesn’t rain that much,” Espinoza remembered. “I never saw so much rain in my life. But (AP) took it well. As long as the ground is stable, horses don’t mind the rain.”
Espinoza was asked what he was thinking as he realized he was about to win the Triple Crown. He was happy but not delirious. You keep looking between the horse’s ears, he said. Espinoza gazed toward the wire. It might as well have been 100 miles away, he said.
Ears are the key to a horse. If they alternately move back and forth, the horse is happy. These days, American Pharoah’s ears are doing a lot of wiggling. Will he compete in the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Aug. 29 and elsewhere before the Breeders’ Cup Classic Oct. 30 and 31? Ultimately, that will not be up to Baffert or owner Ahmed Zayat.
“The next race is all up to American Pharoah.”
For more on American Pharoah, see my story in August WAG (“Passion Plays”) and my sports/culture blog at thegamesmenplay.com. – Georgette Gouveia