As a teenager, Victor Espinoza drove a bus amid the chaos and gridlock of overpopulated Mexico City, which was excellent preparation for navigating a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby. ''It's a lot easier riding horses than being in that traffic,'' he said.
Yet don't assume Espinoza was a fearless youth. While growing up on his family's farm north of Mexico City, he steered clear of . . . horses. On a recent guest appearance with Arsenio Hall, Espinoza confessed, ''I was so afraid because they were such angry, huge animals.''
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By age 18, the 5-2, 114-pounder was brave enough to enter a jockey school, and a year later he was riding winners at big-time Hipodromo de las Americas near Mexico City. A year later, he headed to Northern California, where he was the hot apprentice at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, occasionally teaming with a trainer named Art Sherman. On June 7, Espinoza and the 77-year-old Sherman will go for the Triple Crown in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes with California Chrome. The ''people's horse'' is after the first sweep of the 3-year-old classics since 1978.
''Thirty-something years? It's just crazy,'' Espinoza said. ''It's not easy. If it was easy, a lot of horses would have won the Triple Crown. It has to be a super horse to win that.''
Espinoza believes he's on one 12 years after his Triple Crown bid with War Emblem came apart leaving the gate in the Belmont. The front-running colt stumbled badly, was bumped hard and plodded in eighth. Espinoza believes that California Chrome's brilliance, combined with his War Emblem experience, can make history.
''In a million years I never thought I would get a second chance,'' he said. ''I learned a lot. I think the first time, some things I was not ready for. ''
Espinoza is 6-for-6, all in stakes, by a combined 27 1/2 lengths on California Chrome, who was 2-for-6 and nobody's idea of a national hero until he replaced Alberto Delgado. In one of those strange twists in which racing seems to specialize, Delgado's younger brother, Willie Delgado, is the colt's exercise rider.
''I've known Victor a long time,'' Sherman said. ''He rode a lot of winners for me in Northern California. I knew he had a lot of talent. We needed to make a change, and I said I got the perfect jockey.
''He fits him like a glove. It means a lot, the rapport between rider and horse.''
At the Preakness news conference, someone asked about the streak's most important ingredient. The affable Espinoza cracked, ''I think the way I ride him,'' and Sherman chimed in, ''I'll drink to that.''
Espinoza's resume takes up more than half a page in Del Mar's media guide. For 15 years, he's been one of the go-to guys in the very competitive Southern California jockey colony, and at 42 he's part of the old guard. According to Equibase.com, Espinoza has more than 3,100 winners, including stars such as two-time Horse of the Year Tiznow, and it's been 20 years since he had to worry about money.
Predictably, his peak years began in his late 20s and lasted through his mid-30s, from 2000-07, in which he averaged 207 victories and about $12.5 million in purses. But starting in 2008, when he turned 37, his stats were cut almost exactly in half, to 104 wins and about $6.5 million annually. It wasn't as if his skills had eroded. A guy who sometimes didn't have enough to eat as an adolescent admitted he had lost his hunger for success.
''There was a time I wasn't doing that great,'' Espinoza told HRTV's Scott Hazleton. ''You get to the top and you get a little lazy. I really wasn't feeling it anymore.''
Espinoza said he seriously considered retiring. Then the lifelong bachelor began dating a woman, whom he's never named, but who made his competitive juices percolate again.
''I met this girl who didn't know anything about racing, but after a while she found out I'd won the Derby and asked why I hadn't won another one,'' Espinoza said. ''She said, 'Have you ever thought about doing it again?' '' He kept telling ''this crazy girl'' that she had no idea how hard it was to win the Derby once and how long the odds were against an encore.
''Finally, one day I woke up and said, 'OK, I'll try to do it just because of you.'
''She really motivated me. Otherwise,'' Espinoza said with a laugh, ''I might be home sleeping.''
Getting back your motivation isn't easy; landing on that special horse is infinitely harder. Espinoza believes the California-bred with the blue-collar pedigree can become the 12th member of thoroughbred racing's most exclusive club.
''California Chrome is very kind, he lets me do whatever I want to do with him,'' he said. ''War Emblem only liked to run in front, and that was very hard for me. California Chrome has tremendous talent to be able to stop and start in a race. I've never been on a horse like this. He's push-button and can open up two or three lengths in no time.
''When I was a kid, I never even thought I'd be a jockey. I never in my life dreamed of winning the Triple Crown. Hopefully, California Chrome comes back strong and is the one who can do it. I'm excited and I'm looking forward.''