Up the Backstretch: Espinoza on the hot seat in Belmont

 

The Sports Network

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Thoroughbred horses feel no pressure as their connections do in horse racing.

So all the pressure for this year's Belmont Stakes is on the people involved with California Chrome, and the most may well be on jockey Victor Espinoza considering a Triple Crown is on the line.

Espinoza is a veteran rider with more than 3,100 career wins and earnings of $160 million. He's been in this situation before with War Emblem in 2002.

"Victor's been there before, so I don't really see him having any issues with it all," said Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed to the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed.

War Emblem was a surprise Kentucky Derby winner in 2002. He was coming out of the Illinois Derby, which at that time wasn't considered a major prep race on the level of the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.

Espinoza rode the 3-year-old for the first time in the Run for the Roses after War Emblem had been sold following the Illinois Derby and given to Bob Baffert to train.

War Emblem was put on the lead and led the entire 1 1/4 miles to capture the Kentucky Derby as a 20-1 longshot. Two weeks later, in the Preakness Stakes, Espinoza had his mount press the pace as the 5-2 favorite and then win by a half-length over a horse based at Pimlico.

The Belmont Stakes was lost when War Emblem had a terrible start and could do no better than eighth.

"It wasn't anybody's fault it was just, you know, things didn't work out," Cauthen noted on the 2002 Belmont Stakes.

Espinoza has another opportunity to win the Triple Crown as California Chrome has put his connections in position to make history.

"Victor's fine. I think he's very well connected with California Chrome," Cauthen said. "I mean they've got a great relationship. It's fun to watch because it reminds me a lot of Affirmed."

The main challenge is riding the horse on a track that's unlike any other in North America. Belmont Park is 1 1/2 miles around while most other tracks are a flat mile.

"It's all in the way you ride the horse that'll carry him the mile and a half," noted Triple Crown winning jockey Ron Turcotte. "I've seen many riders do exactly what (Edgar) Prado says: they move at the five-eighth pole instead of the three-eighths pole. They are same colored poles, and they are located in the same place. There's a mile track where the three eighth pole is, but that is the five eighth pole at Belmont, should be at Belmont."

Espinoza has been aboard California Chrome beginning with a win in the King Glorious Stakes late last year at Hollywood Park. They have won six straight stakes and are now in position to complete a sweep of three of the most important events in thoroughbred racing.

"Victor Espinoza knows him inside and out. The horse responds well for him," Cauthen said. "He's got a lot of options with him. You know, he can go to the front, sit second, third, fourth. You know, the horse seems to settle wherever he wants him, and he can pick up in an instant when he asks him, like he did on the turn, you know, at Pimlico when that horse challenged on the outside.

"It looked like he didn't even have to ask him, the horse just did it on his own, and that's how Affirmed was. I think he's ready. I mean he's got all the talent.

"There's been 12 horses that had a chance, and a couple of them, Big Brown being one, even looked like a lock-in, and you just you never know. That's why they have to run the race. But I'm, you know, I'm pretty optimistic that this horse has got a great chance of pulling it off."

All systems are go for California Chrome to make a final push for the Triple Crown. He has shown remarkable ability when both challenged during a race and left to his own devices when the other runners are not within hailing distance.

Read more Horse Racing stories from the Miami Herald

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