NEW YORK (AP) — Victor Espinoza called it “the best feeling I ever had,” and American Pharoah was only through the first turn.
A tad slow out of the gate at the Belmont Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner seemed to glide to the lead in just two strides. This wasn’t War Emblem, who stumbled at the start and never recovered in 2002. Nor was it California Chrome, who didn’t have anything left by last year’s Belmont.
In his third Triple Crown try, Espinoza was atop the best horse Saturday and never had reason to doubt it.
The only jockey since Affirmed’s sweep in 1978 to get two shots at a Triple Crown, let alone three, Espinoza guided American Pharoah to an early lead and just pulled away from there.
“It’s just an amazing feeling that you have when it’s 20 yards out of the wire and you’re three or four lengths in front,” he said.
War Emblem, also trained by Bob Baffert, was a pure front-runner and could rally only to eighth. Espinoza had to wait a dozen years for another chance, but California Chrome could manage no better than a dead heat for fourth.
“Two times, I feel like a loser,” he said.
The 43-year-old Espinoza got another opportunity right away, becoming the first jockey to enter two straight Belmonts in line to win the Triple Crown.
Everything felt right Saturday.
“Warming up he was just class,” Espinoza said.
“He walked into the gate, amazing,” he added. “He was ready today.”
But in the gate, a horse next to them moved and American Pharoah did too. Just then, the gates opened, and the Triple Crown hopeful lost a split-second. Espinoza knew he still wanted to surge to the front right away, and it worked perfectly as Espinoza won the Belmont for the first time in five tries.
Baffert had told his jockey in the paddock, “Dude, he is ready. Go ahead, ride him with confidence.”
“And he did,” the trainer said.
All the way to becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. It’s a lucky number for Espinoza, the jockey noted — he’s one of 12 children.
He grew up on a farm outside Mexico City, where he once worked as a bus driver. All those skills he learned about weaving through traffic were never needed Saturday.
Espinoza first started winning at Mexico City’s Hippodromo de las Americas. He moved to Northern California in the early 1990s then to Los Angeles, and his career really got going there in 2000.
A year later, he rode Congaree for Baffert in the jockey’s first Kentucky Derby, finishing third. The trainer wasn’t pleased with how he handled the race and replaced him.
With American Pharoah, Espinoza was the jockey Baffert turned to after the horse lost his first career race at Del Mar with Martin Garcia. Espinoza started riding American Pharoah in September and they’re 7-0 together.
Espinoza will donate his winnings to City of Hope in Duarte, California, a cancer research and treatment center. He’ll keep something much more valuable: a place in history. Espinoza appeared on the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s ballot for the first time this year but didn’t get in.
Now he owns the title of Triple Crown winner with many more honors sure to come.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.