In a setting as American as apple pie, Twin Spires and all, a Mexican mano a mano battle looms at storied Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May between Victor Espinoza and Martin Garcia, natives of Mexico and the regular riders of the two favorites for the 141st Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah and Dortmund.
Espinoza, 42, from the metropolis of Mexico City, and Garcia, 30, from the touristy beach town of Vera Cruz, some 500 miles away, could decide not only which is the best 3-year-old trained by Bob Baffert, American Pharoah ridden by Espinoza or Dortmund ridden by Garcia, but also who wins the Run for the Roses.
Dortmund’s smashing victory in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby only added to his wow factor. Should this red Mack truck of a horse–call him The Diesel–win the Kentucky Derby, it would mark the third time in the last four years the Santa Anita Derby winner had done so, I’ll Have Another winning in 2012 and California Chrome last year.
American Pharoah, meanwhile, is poised to capture the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, which would set up a match between two stablemates that harkens back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the entry of Citation and Coaltown from legendary Calumet Farm ran one-two at 40 cents to the dollar in the 1948 Derby.
All was fine Sunday with Dortmund, said Bob Baffert, who watched American Pharoah work six furlongs with Garcia up in 1:11.60. “That was perfect,” Baffert said. “I got him galloping out (seven furlongs) in 1:24.80. He’s right on schedule. He does everything real easy. He’ll leave Wednesday for Oaklawn.”
Thus the countdown diminishes, for the racing world as a whole, and for two jockeys from south of the border, who, before gaining prominence at the top of their profession, were eking out an existence, Garcia as a no habla ingles hash slinger in a Pleasanton deli and Espinoza as a bus driver in his native country.
“He was so small,” said his agent, Brian Beach, “he could hardly see over the steering wheel.”
Espinoza made light of the fact that he was from a big town and Garcia was not.
“We’re all Mexicans,” Espinoza said. “It’s all the same.”
Now the Kentucky Derby, less than a month away, grows ever larger in importance, with all prospective participants focused on keeping their charges fit and healthy. They know full well that anything can happen in the world of sports, horse racing no exception.
After all, Kentucky’s Wildcats fell after a 38-0 start.
But they were human. American Pharoah and Dortmund are not.