Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 18, 2014

Espinoza And Chrome, Two-Thirds Of The Way Home

Down through the decades there have been the famous pairings; thoroughbred and jockey, forever linked in the minds of horse racing fans. The equine and the human, each an integral part of their joint success. Seabiscuit’s story would not be complete without Red Pollard. Eddie Arcaro won more of the great American stakes races than any other jockey, and had already won the Triple Crown in 1941 aboard Whirlaway. But the lasting images are of Arcaro astride Citation seven years later, sweeping through the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the early stages of the immortal colt’s 16-race winning streak.

One still marvels at the old video of the 1973 Belmont Stakes, with Ron Turcotte and Secretariat “moving like a tremendous machine,” in Chic Anderson’s famous call. In the blue and white checkerboard silks of Penny Tweedy’s Meadow Stables, Turcotte spurred Big Red past rival Sham on the back stretch and steadily pulled away, demolishing the field by 31 lengths.

Five years later it was the teenage prodigy Steve Cauthen who was every bit as vital to Affirmed’s Triple Crown success as the horse itself. Three times Affirmed was challenged by familiar foe Alydar in the stretch, and three times Cauthen guided his mount to victory by ever decreasing margins. A length in the Derby. A neck in the Preakness. Then in the final furlong of the Belmont, Alydar edged in front, seeking to deny Affirmed and Cauthen their place in the sport’s history books. In that moment of greatest challenge, the 18-year old jockey rallied his horse and Affirmed crossed the wire in front by a nose.

Thirty-five year later and still we wait for the next great pairing that will write a new chapter in racing lore. Roughly half the country has no direct experience with a Triple Crown winner, for that much of the population was either not born in 1978 or was too young to have any conscious memory of the races that defined the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar, just three of ten times that the two horses went to the post together.

The sport has changed and there are no longer such rivalries. When California Chrome shipped from Louisville to Baltimore after winning the Kentucky Derby, the horses who finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at Churchill Downs all bade him farewell, declining to enter the Preakness just two weeks later. Of Chrome’s 18 Derby competitors only Ride On Curlin and General A Rod, who finished 7th and 11th respectively, ran in Baltimore.

Now that the Derby winner has captured the Triple Crown’s second jewel, those three closest foes from the Derby will be waiting for him on Long Island. Ride On Curlin, who improved to second in the Preakness, and Social Inclusion, who skipped the Derby and was thought to be Chrome’s biggest threat at Pimlico will be there as well.

This is the added challenge of winning the Triple Crown in the 21st century. A horse must not just win three races of different lengths over five weeks, the last at a mile and one-half, a distance no horse entered will have run to that point in their career, nor likely ever will again. That horse must also do so against fields of challengers owned and trained by horsemen who carefully pick and choose their spots to run; and the standard approach to training these days is certainly not to go to the post three times in just five weeks. Since only one horse can win the Triple Crown after the Derby, and since the demise of a corporate sponsored bonus program which held out the possibility of a substantial payday for performing well in all three races, there is little incentive for handlers of the Derby also-rans to run the gauntlet.

So while California Chrome will doubtless be the overwhelming favorite at the parimutuel windows on the first Saturday in June, assuming of course that he doesn’t encounter any health issues between now and then, the reality is that he faces long odds. Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown, beginning with Sir Barton in 1919 and on down through the decades to Affirmed. In the years since Cauthen urged his horse in front at the wire, an equal number have entered the starting gate on the front stretch at Belmont Park with a chance to end the drought; and all have failed.

Some have beaten themselves, as when War Emblem went to his knees at the gate in 2002, his chances gone in the first seconds of the race. Some have been improbably beaten, like Smarty Jones placing in 2004 behind the longshot Birdstone, sent off at 36-1. At least one has come agonizingly close. In 1998 it took examination of the photo finish to determine that Real Quiet had been nosed out of history by Victory Gallop.

No one should be surprised if in the end the long wait just gets longer by another year. And yet, this year there is a pairing, a combination of horse and jockey that evokes the magic of old. California Chrome, the product of a $10,000 breeding, with his working-class owners and 77-year old trainer, had two wins and a place in his first six races as a two-year old. Those rides were split between Alberto Delgado and Corey Nakatani.

But then last December, for Chrome’s final race of the year, trainer Art Sherman handed the reins to Victor Espinoza. The 41-year old has ridden more than 3,000 winners in his career. Three days before Christmas he guided California Chrome to an easy victory in the King Glorious Stakes, the last winner of the last stakes race at the now-closed Hollywood Park. Through the California Cup Derby in January, the San Felipe Stakes in early March, the Santa Anita Derby in April, and on through Churchill Downs and Pimlico, Chrome and Espinoza have been unstoppable.

In the Preakness Espinoza rated his horse behind the early speed as he had planned. Then at the half mile pole deep in the back stretch, the jockey saw Social Inclusion coming up on the outside. He had not intended to ask his horse to run that early in the race, preferring to make a move as the field straightened for home. In an instant Espinoza had to decide whether he could afford to wait, and whether his mount would have something left at the end if he made an early move. The decision was to go, and the pair swept around the far turn stride for stride with Social Inclusion. It was the latter who faltered down the stretch, and Chrome had more than enough left to hold off the late charge of Ride On Curlin.

Perhaps the massive oval on Long Island and the field of fresher horses will prove too great a challenge. Espinoza knows what it’s like to be there and fail. A dozen years ago he was on the back of War Emblem, triumphant in Kentucky and Maryland, only to stumble out of the gate in New York. Most jockeys don’t get a single chance to race for history; now Victor Espinoza has a second one. This time as part of a pairing that has never finished anywhere except first.

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