By Jennie Rees for JockeyTalk360
Triple Crown hero American Pharoah is retired, but California Chrome keeps giving to jockey Victor Espinoza.
In his pursuit of becoming the first jockey to win the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup, Espinoza guided his 2014 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Horse of the Year winner to an easy victory Thursday in the $150,000 Trans Gulf Electromechanical Trophy, a 1 1/4-mile handicap race at Meydan Race Course in the United Arab Emirates. The race, in which California Chrome carried 132 pounds, is his prep to the real overseas prize, the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 26.
Of course in fairness, the Breeders’ Cup and Dubai world Cup didn’t even exist when Affirmed in 1978 became the last Triple Crown winner before American Pharoah. But still, Espinoza’s magical ride from an underage, undersized bus driver in Mexico City to the sport’s brightest lights continues well after American Pharoah embarks on a stallion career at Ashford Stud, Coolmore’s American operation in Kentucky’s Woodford County.
“It was easy,” Espinoza told the Meydan interviewer after the race. “The way he looked was the way he won. I didn’t want to overdo it too much, because I know it’s a short period of time to the next race. So I didn’t want to empty the tank today. He went nice and comfortable today. I felt I got a good position on the first turn, and from there on it was pretty much all by himself.”
California Chrome broke on the rail and conceded 15 pounds and more to his overmatched rivals. Espinoza got the 5-year-old toward the outside, tracking the Korean-bred pacesetter Success Story in third with the jockey clearly having a ton of horse whenever he chose to use it. With little encouragement, California Chrome powered to the lead and left the field in his wake to cruise home by two lengths with Espinoza wrapping up on him.
California Chrome now is 2-for-2 this year, having won Santa Anita’s Jan. 9 San Pasqual Stakes.
Espinoza said California Chrome is better than he was a year ago. The chestnut horse, who will stand in stud at Taylor Made in Nicholasville, Ky., when his racing career is over, finished a good second in last year’s Dubai World Cup. This year his camp opted to follow the route of 2008 Dubai World Cup winner Curlin, who went over early to get a race over the surface.
“When he’s feeling good, he comes out of the gate like a rocket,” he said. “That’s a good sign that he’s got energy like before.”
A day earlier, Espinoza was announced as the recipient of Santa Anita’s 2016 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner.
“I told Victor about it the other day,” agent Brian Beach said Wednesday of the Woolf Award, voted on by jockeys to one of their own who projects a positive image of the sport beyond the racetrack. “He was happy to hear the news, especially since it’s voted on by his peers. He’s very pleased about the whole thing.”
Espinoza arrived in Dubai Tuesday evening, his latest international travel that has included trips to Hong Kong and London. It’s hard to imagine the void left after a jockey becomes the first in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. But it’s also hard to imagine being in a position to still be riding your 2014 Horse of the Year in California Chrome.
“Everything that Alan Sherman tells me, the horse is better than he’s ever been, including his 3-year-old year and the Triple Crown,” Beach said, referring to the assistant to and son of trainer Art Sherman. “They are so pleased with him right now. So that’s exciting, with a couple of big races on the horizon with him, the World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic if everything goes well. To have that year we had last year and it doesn’t just end all of a sudden. We’ve got California Chrome back right on the heels of that. He’s the one who started it all, too.
“We probably wouldn’t have been on American Pharoah if it hadn’t been for California Chrome in the first place. I know Bob (Baffert) likes to go with hot jockeys. When we were going through the (2014) Triple Crown, it was mentioned to me that he was looking for a horse for Victor for next year. I’m sure that played into us getting on American Pharoah. We really owe a lot to California Chrome. He’s such a fun horse to be associated with. He has such a huge following. Neither Victor nor myself can do too much without hearing about California Chrome from people.”
Espinoza’s most promising 3-year-old this year is the unbeaten Smokey Image, who like California Chrome is a California-bred. “We’re kind of looking at the California Chrome scenario all over again,” Beach said.
Espinoza rode Smokey Image for the first time in his last start, an 8 1/2-length romp in the Cal Cup Derby. He rode California Chrome for the second time in the same race, a 5 1/2-length romp.
“Victor rode him last time and has worked him his last two times and is very excited about him,” Beach said. “He has a chance to be right back in the mix again.”
But the American Pharoah lovefest hasn’t subsided either. “Matter of fact, I have three different interviews waiting for him when he gets back,” Beach said. “Actually, one of them is in Dubai the next time he goes, the international horse magazine called Gallop. Muscle and Fitness Magazine wants to do a thing on him in its May issue. All those things come because of the Triple Crown, and they’re still coming at him on a weekly basis.”