The thirty-six year Triple Crown drought will continue after Mexican jockey Victor Espinoza came up short on California Chrome at the Belmont Stakes.
Despite a game effort, Espinoza guided California Chrome to a shared fourth place finish and, thus, failed to become the first Latin American jockey to ride a horse to the Triple Crown.
“I was waiting for (California Chrome) to have a little kick in the homestretch but he didn’t have it,” admitted Espinoza referring to his “tired” horse after today’s race.
“This is very important for me,” said Joel Rosario from the Dominican Republic who rode Tonalist to the victory by a nose. "I’m a little upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him," he added.
For the 29-year-old Rosario, today's Belmont win is the pinnacle of a career that included victories last year in the Dubai World Cup and the Kentucky Derby.
Both Rosario and Espinoza represent an influx of Latin American jockeys who in recent years have come to dominate horse racing in North America. The last four winners of the Kentucky Derby have come from the region (Espinoza, Rosario, Mario Gutierrez from Mexico and John Velasquez from Puerto Rico) while Venezuelan Javier Castellano set the single season earnings record ($25.64 million) in 2013.
For Espinoza, the past month of racing represents a partial redemption following his inability to capture the Triple Crown with War Emblem in 2002.
"This is my second and last chance [at the Triple Crown]," he said shortly after he rode the three-year-old colt to victory in the Preakness Stakes two weeks ago.
“In a million years, I didn't think I was going to have a second chance. I was very close once. Life goes on, and over a decade, here we go — I'm here again.”
Aside from casual and veteran followers of the “sport of kings,” Espinoza’s achievements have been cheered by some of his biggest fans including the child patients of the City of Hope cancer research and treatment center in Los Angeles.
“It makes me cry to see all the kids that can't even have a life like we have,” an emotional Espinoza admitted after the Kentucky Derby last month. Over the years he had donated 10% of his earnings on the track to help City of Hope.
Others who have been rooting hard for Espinoza are his family including brother Jose, a jockey whose career came to a halt last August when he fell off a racehorse. Though Jose introduced Victor to ride thoroughbreds at Mexico City's Hipódromo de las Américas, Jose struggled with headaches and balance issues and refused to discuss horse racing with his brother. Yet Victor’s run for the Triple Crown has apparently helped lift Jose’s spirits:
Jose came to Kentucky on the morning of the Derby, and after California Chrome's victory, sat in the back row at Victor's press conference. On that day, after watching Victor's triumph, Jose vowed that he would do everything possible to get back on horses. Eleven days later, in a phone interview, he was far less certain. "Maybe," he said. "I'm not too sure." The father of two children (son Luis, 19; daughter Ali, 18), Jose faces difficult decisions and, potentially, major life adjustments.
For now, he draws strength from his brother's work. Or perhaps it just a welcome distraction. Jose says that barring a severe setback, he will be in Baltimore to watch the Preakness. Together the Espinoza brothers chase old memories. After the Derby, it was Jose who held a camera and pointed it at his little brother, like Victor had done for him more than two decades earlier in Mexico City.
"Remember Victor?" Jose said. "You took that picture of me after my first race? Now I am taking a picture of you."
And the two of them laughed again like little boys.
Horse racing is practiced in several Latin American countries with the most prestigious races include Argentina’s Gran Premio Jockey Club, the Gran Premio Latinoamericano and the Clásico del Caribe. (The latter race was won by Rosario in 2008). Though horse racing in North America has fallen from its immense popularity in the mid-20th century, the sport has received a minor boost from Mexican breeders who have moved their operations to the U.S. and away from influence from drug gangs like the Zetas.
Video Source - The New York Racing Association via YouTube
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