Jockey Victor Espinoza is fun-loving and spontaneous, so when he grabbed a bottle of Champagne in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle, he shook it and aimed. The spray spattered the solid-gold trophy and hit a laughing Ahmed Zayat in the face. American Pharoah's owner opened wide to taste the exquisite French bubbly on the greatest day of his racing life.
Espinoza had been there twice before, including last year with California Chrome, so he wasn't overwhelmed by a victory that makes most people lose it. He goes with the flow on and off the racetrack, where he admits he's not a Plan A, Plan B guy. Twenty-five years ago, as a 17-year-old bus driver trying to survive amid Mexico City's insane traffic, he learned early about the value of improvising.
The day before the Derby, trainer Bob Baffert texted Espinoza and told him to try for the early lead with American Pharoah. "I said, 'OK, Bob, that's a good idea.' " But in the paddock before the race, the edgy Baffert second-guessed himself. "He's like, 'I don't know. You know what? Just do whatever you want,' " Espinoza said. "I was like, 'Whatever happens, happens.' And it worked out well."
Fate has been very kind to Espinoza during the past 18 months, when he was transformed into a national celebrity partly by being in the right place at the right time. In December 2013, he picked up the mount on 2-year-old California Chrome when his connections decided to replace Alberto Delgado after consecutive sixth-place finishes. Espinoza and "Chromie" swept six stakes in a row before their Triple Crown bid ended in the Belmont Stakes.
Last September, Espinoza inherited American Pharoah in his second start. Martin Garcia, who rode him to a fifth-place finish in his debut, had committed to another horse in the Del Mar Futurity before Baffert decided to enter "Pharoah." Thank you, racing gods. Espinoza and his new fast friend cruised by 4 lengths, the first of five straight stakes wins.
"My first ride on him, he was amazing," Espinoza said. "The way he won that day, as a maiden in a Grade I, I said, 'Wow!' "
Four days before the Derby, Espinoza stood on Churchill Downs' backstretch and reflected on the circumstances that put him on back-to-back Derby winners. "I guess I'm a very lucky Mexican, huh?" he said with a laugh.
After the Derby, in a quickie interview on horseback with NBC's Donna Barton Brothers, a jubilant Espinoza ad-libbed the day's best line: "I feel like I'm the luckiest Mexican on Earth."
There's no substitute for good fortune, but when you get a break, you have to capitalize, and Espinoza never lost in his first 11 rides on California Chrome and American Pharoah. On Saturday at Pimlico, he could become the first jockey to sweep back-to-back Preaknesses since Pat Day took three in a row from 1994-96.
Baffert's belief in Espinoza may have prompted his last-minute change of heart about strategy. "I said, 'You know what, Victor? You just ride the horse. You're one of the best riders in the country, and you know your horse better than I do.' "
Espinoza won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness for the first time in 2002 on Baffert's War Emblem. He'll be heavily favored to get his third, and Baffert's sixth. Baffert couldn't possibly be as stressed out as he was before the Derby, which he called "my race to lose," and Espinoza will be his usual laid-back self.
At the Derby news conference, he reminded Zayat's wife, Joanne, of a promise she made in the paddock. "She told me, 'If you win, I'll cook for you,' " Espinoza said. "So you owe me a dinner, a home-cooked dinner. I hope you know how to make Mexican food."
The Zayats are Jewish, so Baffert suggested a compromise: "Kosher tacos."
Notes & quotes: Trainer Todd Pletcher told the Maryland Jockey Club he would wait until Tuesday to decide whether Derby also-rans Materiality (sixth) and Carpe Diem (10th) will go in the Preakness. On Saturday, he all but ruled out Competitive Edge and Stanford. "Everybody galloped today," Pletcher said. "I'll make a final decision tomorrow after I see them train."