BALTIMORE – Thoroughbred trainers are like coaches – they want to arm their jockeys with a pre-race strategy.
There are plans for ideal scenarios and a contingency plan in case things go awry. They can deliver 20 minutes of instructions for a two-minute race.
But in the case of California Chrome, trainer Art Sherman says he basically turns over everything to jockey Victor Espinoza. No instructions on how to ride his star colt, no discussion of where to place him in the race, no micromanaging. A former jockey himself, the 77-year-old Sherman trusts his rider to make all the right moves.
"Normally, most of the trainers tell you exactly how they would like you to ride their horse," Espinoza said Friday at rain-soaked Pimlico Race Course. "Art and I, we have a different relationship. He just let me do my own thing and the right thing for California Chrome."
So far, Sherman's hands-off strategy has been a hands-down success. He's stepped back and watched an amazing alchemy form between the best horse he's ever trained and a jockey enjoying a late-career renaissance.
California Chrome is undefeated with Espinoza on his back, winning five straight races by a combined 26 lengths. That includes the Kentucky Derby triumph two weeks ago, and the pair will try to make it six straight here Saturday as the 3-5 favorite in the Preakness.
To be sure, the 41-year-old Espinoza has a relatively easy horse to ride. Blessed with tactical speed, agility and an agreeable nature, California Chrome is no problem child. He accelerates when urged and relaxes when Espinoza asks him to. Other than some restlessness in the starting gate, the colt has made life easy – and profitable – for his jockey.
If he has a standard 10 percent cut of the horse's purse money, California Chrome has put nearly a quarter million dollars in Espinoza's pocket this year alone. And of that quarter million, Espinoza says he's donated 10 percent to pediatric patients at City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment center in Los Angeles.
He said he's been making donations to City of Hope for years – he just hadn't said anything about it until this month. There has been no look-at-me fanfare about it, no attempts to seek publicity. It's just something that a man who grew up as one of 12 children on a farm outside Mexico City believes in doing.
"He keeps a lot of things to himself," his agent Brian Beach said. "He's not real boastful about the things he's done."
In one of many touching California Chrome moments at the Kentucky Derby, Espinoza spoke about the kids at City of Hope and abruptly dissolved into tears. He'd visited there before but had difficulty staying long, because he was so anguished by the sight of children suffering from a deadly disease.
"I broke down and cried seeing all these young kids who can't have the life we have," Espinoza said May 3 in Louisville. "It changed my life seeing 6- and 8- and 10-year-olds sick with cancer like that. I just hope with the money I earned today, I can make a difference in at least one of those kids' lives."
At the request of NBC, Espinoza paid a visit to City of Hope Tuesday. This time, he summoned the wherewithal to stay longer – four hours, according to Beach. As the man of the moment in horse racing, Victor Espinoza was very much in demand among the children.
"It was a big challenge for me and a big experience," he said. "We talked to all the kids and it was a lot of fun. It was a special moment for me."
This extended special moment with California Chrome has returned Espinoza to the forefront of his profession – a place he hasn't been for quite a while. He won the 2002 Kentucky Derby aboard 20-1 long shot War Emblem, stealing the race on the front end with the horse's blinding speed.
But that was a while ago. In the 140-year history of the Derby, only Bill Shoemaker – who won it for the fourth and final time 21 years after his third win – has gone longer between Derby victories than Espinoza's 12 years.
From 2000-07, Espinoza earned more than a million dollars seven times – staggering money for a guy who once drove a bus in Mexico City to make ends meet. In addition to winning the Derby in '02 with War Emblem, he also guided the colt to victory here in the Preakness. In 2001, Espinoza was third in the Derby aboard Congaree and second in both the Preakness and Belmont aboard AP Valentine.
But success is fickle for jockeys. Espinoza's number of mounts and earnings started dropping off in 2008, and by 2012 he had only 638 mounts and 74 wins – both his lowest since 1993, his first year riding in the United States. On the super-competitive Southern California riding circuit, he's been just another rider over the last several years.
"Sometimes you can kind of get forgotten a little bit," said Beach, who has been Espinoza's agent for about 18 months. " … In this business, you're as good as your last winner. It's very much, 'What have you done for me lately?' "
Beach said Espinoza handles the hiring-and-firing cycle of a jockey well – he's not one to hold a grudge when he's taken off a horse. You just have to hope there's another one that will come around.
One like California Chrome.
Last summer, Espinoza spied the 2-year-old Chrome at Del Mar in San Diego. He told Beach he'd love a chance at riding that horse someday.
"He thought he had a lot of potential," Beach said. "He's a very flashy horse when you see him on the track."
Beach put a word in with Sherman and his sons, Alan and Steve, who assist their father in the training business. Espinoza had a relationship with the Shermans going back many years, to when he rode in Northern California, which is where Art Sherman has spent much of his career.
But Sherman and Chrome's owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, stuck with regular rider Alberto Delgado. Finally, after the horse had consecutive disappointing, sixth-place finishes last September and November, they decided to make a change. Espinoza got the call from Art Sherman.
"I told him, 'I'm going to put you on a real talented horse, come over and work him and tell me what you think,' " Art recalled. "He rode him and said, 'Wow, he's the real McCoy.' "
It's been a perfect marriage ever since. No defeats, and not even anything you'd consider a close call.
The pressure was on two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, but Espinoza handled it with a smooth and savvy ride. As a 3-5 favorite, the pressure will increase some more Saturday. Especially since the gameplan is in his hands.
But there is nobody Art Sherman trusts more with California Chrome's Triple Crown chances than Victor Espinoza. He's earned the right to call the shots.