Victor Espinoza first learned to ride on his parent’s dairy farm in Mexico.
In those humble beginnings, a donkey was his first mount.
On Saturday, Espinoza deftly sat atop the greatest racehorse in generations, American Pharoah, as it thundered to victory in the Belmont Stakes and into immortality.
American Pharoah is a Triple Crown winner, and for Espinoza, the third time truly was the charm.
Twice before, Espinoza was the jockey of a horse that won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness — War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome a year ago. Each time, the Belmont ended with unspeakable disappointment.
Not Saturday. Not with American Pharoah, who blasted the field by more than five lengths and ran the sixth-fastest time (2:26.65) in Belmont history.
“As soon as sat in the saddle, he had so much power,” Espinoza said. “Bob [Baffert] trained this horse perfect.”
The plan was to break fast, seize the lead and never surrender it. The 43-year-old executed it to perfection.
As for Espinoza’s thoughts as made the last turn with nothing but open space between him and the finish line?
“This has not happened yet,” Espinoza said. “I want to cross the wire. I dropped the reins, and he just took off. I passed the wire, and I said, ‘I cannot believe that.’”
Espinoza, one of 12 brothers and sisters, said he is donating his proceeds from Saturday’s victory to childhood cancer research.
Tonalist’s remarkable run at Belmont Park finally ended. Honor Code on Saturday cracked the 2014 Belmont Stakes champion’s code.
A late charge allowed Honor Code to storm past the entire field in the loaded Metropolitan Mile, a Grade I stakes event with a whopping $1.25 million purse.
Tonalist, who was undefeated in four career starts here, finished second. Private Zone was third. Breeders’ Cup Champion Bayern collapsed after a torrid start and finished last.
Honor Code, whose grand sire is 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, was fourth in betting at post time at 7-1. He was far back of the pace at the final turn but showed an extra gear for the biggest win of the 4-year-old’s career.
“I just wanted to take my time, and it paid off at the end,” said Javier Castellano, the winning jockey. “When I pushed the button he took off and gave me a beautiful stride.”
Wedding Toast broke fast and surged late to hold off heavily favored Untapable and capture the $1 million Ogden Phipps. The win qualified Wedding Toast for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in October.
The 5-year-old filly, which went off at 2-1, won the 11/16-mile race by five lengths over Untapable, who was the 3-5 favorite. House Rules finished third in the five-horse field.
“[Jockey] Jose [Lezcano] made a great decision to go to the lead,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, Wedding Toast’s trainer. “... They let her go easy and that was the difference.”
LONG SHOT PAYS
Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. capped an impressive weekend by guiding long shot Slumber to a shocking victory in the 11/4 mile Manhattan.
Slumber bested favorite Big Blue Kitten by 23/4 lengths to capture the Grade I turf race. Legendary finished third.
Slumber, a 7-year-old turf specialist, won for just the fifth time in his career.
“Both horses ran terrific,” Slumber’s trainer Chad Brown said. “I though Irad got beautiful position early and really he was moving so comfortable halfway through the race, he just needed a hole. He was a winner every step of the way.”
Fast riser Curalina extended her winning streak to three in a row, prevailing in the Grade I Acorn, the mile race for 3-year-old fillies. By the Moon was second, and Wonder Girls finished third in the $750,000 showcase.
Curalina has been hot since winning the $50,000 Maiden Special Weight at Gulfstream Park on Florida Derby weekend.
“She got a horrible start,” victorious trainer Todd Pletcher said. “She got sandwiched from both sides. I thought she lost all chance right there.
“If you watch the head on replay, it was a pretty remarkable effort.”