BALTIMORE - Twelve years ago, Victor Espinoza sat in the starting gate at Belmont Park with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown. One bad step tripped him up.
Front-runner War Emblem stumbled badly coming out of the gate, then was bumped hard before a desperate Espinoza tried to rush him to the lead. He never got there, and the winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness plodded home eighth behind 70-1 shot Sarava in the Belmont Stakes.
Now Espinoza has another opportunity to sweep the 3-year-old classics with California Chrome, whom he's ridden to six consecutive wins by a combined 27½ lengths.
"It means a lot, and I'm ready for it," the 41-year-old Mexican said. "Hopefully, California Chrome comes back good. It's tough, but I'm just glad to have a second chance. In a million years I didn't think I was going to have one.
"I was very close once. Life goes on, and after over a decade, here we go. I'm here again."
His California-bred superstar had to work harder in Saturday's Preakness than in the Derby, and there's no more grueling test than the 1½-mile "Test of the Champion."
After scaring off 16 of the 18 horses he beat in the Derby, California Chrome handled Ride On Curlin (second) and General a Rod (fourth) plus seven new shooters at Pimlico. On June 7, he'll encounter a rested group likely to include Commanding Curve, Danza and Wicked Strong, 2-3-4, respectively, in Louisville, plus the up-and coming Tonalist, Ride On Curlin and Social Inclusion, who was third Saturday.
The last eight Belmont winners skipped the Preakness, and California Chrome's co-owner Steve Coburn said that's not fair. He views the Triple Crown series like a three-round golf tournament, figuring if you withdraw from one round, you shouldn't be allowed back in.
"In my opinion, there are trainers out there that train horses just to upset the apple cart," Coburn said. "I honestly believe that if you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back in the Belmont.
"I'm 61, and I honestly believe if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime, because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart.
"They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck. So that's my honest opinion. If they don't like it, I don't care."