ARACADIA, Calif. — Jockey Victor Espinoza had been there before. Twice, in fact. And horse trainer Bob Baffert has been there before, too. Thrice, to be exact.
But they never have won the Triple Crown, the holy grail of horse racing — until now.
Espinoza’s third try and Baffert’s fourth on Saturday proved victorious in their quest to win that glory, with their hopes riding on the 3-year-old thoroughbred whose name begs a New World order: American Pharoah.
“I’m ready, thinking the third time is the charm,” Espinoza said, laughing, before the race began.
“I’ve been through it three times,” Baffert added. “I’ve been really lucky for three times, and I got beat by an inch one time.”
Just getting one shot at the Triple Crown — the winning of a series of U.S. horse racing’s three major races — is rare enough.
37 years and waiting
The last Triple Crown winner was 37 years ago: Affirmed in 1978.
The multiple opportunities shared by both men made Saturday’s Belmont Stakes — the last of the crown’s races — a moment rich in historic significance.
As it happens, the Belmont Stakes is the most demanding of the three.
“When you get to the third leg, there’s a lot of fresher horses waiting for you,” Baffert said.
“It’s a mile and a half, and they never go that far, and so you never know who can do it,” Baffert said of the thoroughbreds.
In fact, the last nine horses to win the Belmont Stakes didn’t run in the prior two legs of the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
What about that bad spelling?
Still, American Pharoah — with its inglorious misspelling of “pharaoh” — was the 3-to-5 favorite to win the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York.
The bad spelling came from a mistake in the horse’s paperwork filed at birth. Still, it hasn’t stopped social media from trending the name with the correct spelling: #AmericanPharaoh. American Pharoah’s owner is Ahmed Zayat, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and moved to the United States at age 18, making his fortune in beverages.
Espinoza was the first jockey in history to go for the Triple Crown a third time and the first ever to attempt it two years in a row.
Last year, Espinoza rode California Chrome to fourth place at the Belmont Stakes. In 2002, he rode War Emblem to victories in the first two races of the crown but they finished eighth when the horse stumbled out of the gate in the Belmont Stakes.
Espinoza and Baffert made their final preparations with American Pharaoh this past week at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, where both men were interviewed.
A dream team
They are a formidable team: Espinoza is ranked No. 3 of 1,266 jockeys in North America, with $7.11 million in earnings in 2015; and Baffert is ranked No. 2 of 4,827 trainers in North America, with $7.55 million in earnings this year, according to Equibase.com. That site describes itself as the official database for the North American thoroughbred racing industry.
A native of Veracruz, Mexico, Espinoza is the 11th of 12 children and was partly raised in Mexico City, to where he moved at age 8. Espinoza donates 10 percent of his winnings to a children’s charity — the children’s cancer center at the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area.
The jockey and trainer were aware of Saturday’s challenge.
“I’ve seen really good horses go in there and fail,” Baffert said. “It doesn’t take a great trainer or a great jockey to win the Triple Crown. It take a great horse. Hopefully, we can make history.”
Added Espinoza: “It’s not easy, that’s why it’s been 37 years.”
Sorry, no chemistry, but is horse happy?
The special thing that Espinoza does is he keeps learning, he said.
“We always learn something new, there’s always something new, I always learn,” the 43-year-old jockey said. “I learn every time that I go to the track. For each race I learn something new and I am here to learn. No matter how many years I ride, I’m here to learn.”
Surprisingly, it’s not chemistry with the horse that concerns the jockey.
“We don’t have chemistry,” Espinoza stated.
“The only thing I’m focusing on is for him to be happy and it’s all about happiness,” he added. “If he’s happy he will run his race. It’s like us: if we are happy we do our job. If we are not happy, we are not going to go to our jobs 100 percent. That’s how I feel about American Pharoah.”