Jose Espinoza couldn’t sleep. Minutes were ticking off the clock Friday night and the hour was past 11, barreling down on midnight. Quite late by racetracker standards, even for a veteran jockey not riding, dealing with the reality of retirement and nursing with a head injury that keeps him out of the saddle.
“I decided last night; I couldn’t go to sleep last night, so I said, ‘no way, I have to go,’ ” said Espinoza, who hasn’t ridden since getting injured in a spill at Saratoga last summer.
“Go” was to Louisville and less than 12 hours later Espinoza was on a plane, flying from New York. He got to Churchill Downs about 4 p.m., with enough time to wish “little” brother Victor good luck in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
A little before 7 p.m. with the crowd of more than 164,906 strong filing out and the dust settled from a memorable 140th edition of the Derby, Espinoza and his wife Rufina took seats among the media at the post-race press conference.
Seated at the dais not 20 feet away was younger brother, along with trainer Art Sherman and co-owner and co-breeder Steve Coburn, answering questions about how they and California Chrome made it look easy in the opening jewel of the American Triple Crown.
“I watched the race right by the gap, down on the ground,” Jose Espinoza said of his vantage point, a perfect spot to watch California Chrome and his brother flash by on the way to the finish post. “It was very, very exciting.”
California Chrome’s 1 3/4-length victory over Commanding Curve was the second Derby for Victor Espinoza, 12 years removed from his first on War Emblem. The two victories were quite different, albeit both strong representations of Espinoza’s abilities and horsemanship.
War Emblem took the field gate-to-wire and was a surprise, winning at 20-1 a few weeks after being privately purchased and changing barns. California Chrome was the favorite, a homebred and the most experienced member of the field. He could do it on the lead like he did in the San Felipe or rating behind a target like he did in the Santa Anita Derby. Whatever Espinoza wanted.
They chose the latter route Saturday, not necessarily by choice.
The stretch run of the Derby is what everyone sees, what the television networks replay, replay and replay some more. And it was impressive, watching California Chrome spurt away like a bank robber fleeing the scene. For Espinoza though, it was a decision much earlier that he feels put California Chrome in the winner’s circle for the seventh time in 11 starts.
Espinoza said he could see California Chrome doing it all on the lead, but opted against when Uncle Sigh to his inside and Chitu to his outside were a little more eager to get there first.
“At that point I make a decision just to ease back a little bit, sit right there in like third right by the wire,” Espinoza said. “Then I see everybody was coming. Now I got trapped a little bit in there. For a couple minutes – well, seconds basically, it seems like its two minutes, I was really a little bit concerned.
“My heart started going like 100 miles an hour. I didn’t want him trapped. I wanted him to run his race. I had to slowly move outside a little bit of those two horses in front. When I hit the first turn, my horse’s head was just outside a little bit from the front horses and that was it. I was like, ‘what a relief, I can breathe, relax, let him stretch his legs.’ I think that win the race there.”
California Chrome tracked Chitu and Uncle Sigh early and stayed out of trouble just ahead of Samraat, Intense Holiday, Tapiture and Vicar’s In Trouble.
Espinoza put him in that spot and California Chrome did the rest.
Around the far turn it was looking like California Chrome was going to join Orb as a Derby-winning favorite. They were rolling, maintaining a faster pace than Samraat as Commanding Curve, Danza and Wicked Strong started to uncoil from the back of the pack. In the stretch it was over.
California Chrome opened up, evoking memories of other recent Derby winners who did the same in the lane. Sunday Silence, Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Barbaro, Big Brown; they all opened up, said “come get me” and got the blanket of roses draped on their shoulders when nobody could get there fast enough.
The margin was less than 2 lengths on the wire, but easily could have been more if not for Espinoza gearing California Chrome down in the final strides and celebrating maybe a tad early. Commanding Curve came running, but was too late. Danza and Wicked Strong made good, if not seriously threatening, late runs to get third and fourth, respectively. Samraat, the only one along with the winner to be close early, was fifth.
“By the 3/8ths pole, he was going so strong,” Espinoza said. “I could see the other horses struggle a little bit. Him, it was just like smooth. Turning for home, I let it go. That was it.”
Jose Espinoza was watching on Churchill’s new 15,224-square foot high definition board and knew it was over at that same spot, too.
“I can’t believe it,” said Jose Espinoza, who like his brother grew up riding horses at their father’s farm in Mexico. “When I saw the horse coming by the 3/8ths I started celebrating because I know he has a ton of horse. And I know horses and I know his hands and I know horses’ legs. I say, ‘wow’ and I started celebrating.
“In the meantime I started thinking about it, since I told him before, ‘if you win the Kentucky Derby I’m going to retire.’ So I said, ‘oh wait, something’s wrong with that.'”