American Pharoah is a gift from God – our own Pegasus, our own wingéd spirit. So when I received an invitation to hear Victor Espinoza speak at Steiner Sports Marketing in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Aug. 3 – well, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.
The “Triple Crown Celebration With Victor Espinoza” was a revelation both for what we amateurs learned about horses and horse racing and the frankness with which Espinoza discussed these subjects.
Looking natty in a gray suit and sky-blue tie, the Mexican-born Espinoza – who guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown in 37 years, then capped it with a resounding win in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park Aug. 2 – was both humble and humorous as he reflected on a career of more than 3,000 victories. (He doesn’t know the exact number.) He had been to the Triple Crown dance before – aboard War Emblem, with AP trainer Bob Baffert in 2002; and then with California Chrome just last year. Or so Fox 5 New York sportscaster Tina Cervasio – the evening’s expert interviewer – reminded him.
“And I failed,” Espinoza countered. “When you lose, they blame the jockey. When you win, it’s the horse and the trainer.”
That remark reminds me of what a disgusted sportswriter wrote after the great Native Dancer lost his Triple Crown bid in the Kentucky Derby (to Dark Star, in 1950), the only race he ever lost: “(Jockey Eric Guerin) took that colt everywhere on the track except the ladies room.”
The Pharoah – whose stride is even wider than that of his great-great-great-grandfather, Secretariat – would prove different for Espinoza. What distinguishes him from the rest?
“He’s faster than all of them,” he quipped to some 50 admirers and journalists who gathered in the sleek, memorabilia-studded offices of Steiner Sports. Indeed, Espinoza said what he has often observed before: The Pharoah is so effortlessly fast that riding him is like driving a great car, which seems to be going in slow motion. Only when Espinoza looks over his shoulder does he realize how far back the pack is.
Success, like hindsight, is 20/20. You think that the end mirrors the beginning. But that is not always the case. Espinoza was upfront about his relationship with Baffert, for whom he used to ride all the time. Then came a two-year falling out. “He wanted me to ride a certain way,” Espinoza said.
But at last year’s Kentucky Derby, Baffert said to him, “You and me, next year.”
“What are the odds of that?” Espinoza added.
His start with the Pharoah would’ve suggested that the odds weren’t good. Though AP now has a reputation of being “nicer than a little pony,” he was a volatile 2-year-old – getting loose, going crazy in the gate, which is dangerous for all members of the team. (He now wears spongy earplugs to keep him calm in noisy crowds.) Espinoza – who rides four or five mounts a day, runs 10 to 12 miles and works out on the mechanical horse – was “not afraid but a little bit cautious. (Horses) can be a little bit crazy.”
Espinoza said he looks at a horse the way he looks at a woman – top to bottom, side to side. (Thanks for sharing, Victor.) Evidently, he liked what he saw in the gorgeous Pharoah, whose famously bobbed tail – Espinoza doesn’t know if another horse chewed off a clump of it – is now growing back.
“Horses are powerful and very sensitive. If I move right, the horse goes right; move back and he slows down.”
You measure the horse’s strength from the top of the neck to the base, or withers, Espinoza said. You can feel that strength as you take the reins. The first time Espinoza sat on AP, he realized he had one powerful animal beneath him. Out on the track, the Pharoah put his neck out. “Oh, oh, that’s not good,” Espinoza remembered thinking. AP was testing him, and Espinoza took a page from the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu (though he may not have realized it): “Yield and overcome.”
Espinoza said he dropped the reins. And the Pharoah calmed down.
“I always believed as a rider that you and the horse have to be one brain, one body.” Having said that, the animal-loving Espinoza stressed that his relationship with AP is professional not personal.
“I just ride him. I’ve visited him three times. I don’t get attached to him, because I don’t own him.”
Those closest to AP, Espinoza said, are his groom Eduardo Luna and exercise rider Georgie Alvarez.
A great team but still, the path to the Triple Crown has not been easy. The Pharoah came from behind in a crowded field to take the Kentucky Derby. Then came the monsoon that was the Preakness.
“I’m from Mexico City, where it doesn’t rain that much,” Espinoza remembered. “I never saw so much rain in my life. But (AP) took it well.) As long as the ground is stable, horses don’t mind the rain.”;
Espinoza was asked what he was thinking as he realized he was about to win the Triple Crown. He was happy but not delirious. You keep looking between the horse’s ears, he said. Espinoza gazed toward the wire. It might as well have been 100 miles away, he said.
Ears are the key to a horse. If they alternately move back and forth, the horse is happy. These days, American Pharoah’s ears are doing a lot of wiggling. Will he compete in the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Aug. 29, as owner Ahmed Zayat was quoted as wishing, and elsewhere before the Breeders’ Cup Classic Oct. 30 and 31? Ultimately, that will not be up to Baffer or Zayat.
“The next race,” Espinoza said, “is all up to American Pharoah.”
For more on American Pharoah, see my story in August WAG (“Passion Plays”) at wagmag.com.