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Espinoza out to put past behind him

ELMONT, N.Y. -- He is the sort of jockey who reminds you all that talk about boxers or MMA fighters being the toughest pound-for-pound SOBs in sports is a self-aggrandizing lie.

California Chrome rider Victor Espinoza has had some of the biggest success of his racing life in the months since his older brother and fellow jockey Jose suffered serious brain trauma in a race. Like every jockey, he's suffered some broken bones and scares of his own. He risks bodily harm every time he competes, but he does it astride a 1,000-pound animal moving 35 mph or so around a dirt track with eight or 10 similarly huge beasts pounding their hooves alongside him.

Anyone who can do that -- let alone expertly ride California Chrome to the brink of becoming only the 12th horse ever to win the Triple Crown -- is not a man whose courage or resourcefulness should be trifled with, let alone doubted.

And so, it was more than a little curious this week when Espinoza -- whose voyages atop the 3-5 favorite to win Saturday's Belmont have drawn nothing but frothy praise during their six-race winning streak -- grew a little testy right off the bat after post positions for the race were drawn Wednesday. It started after someone in a little media scrum asked if Espinoza had "learned anything" on his last crack at a Triple Crown sweep, back when he didn't win with War Emblem in 2002.

"No. That's ancient history," Espinoza shot back with a tight little smile.

Did he feel any of the same awe that Chrome's trainer Art Sherman confessed when he got back to the Belmont this week for the first time after being based in California for so many years, and then remarked how he was struck all over again by the vastness and sweep of the track?

"Not at all," Espinoza said. Then he shut up.

He was similarly dismissive about the worries of whether Chrome can handle the career-long, mile-and-a-half distance.

"I haven't run a mile and a half before? You better do your homework," Espnioza scoffed to a reporter.

"Well, I know you're 2-67 on this racetrack for your career" the reporter countered. "Does that mean anything?"

"Maybe to you," Espinoza shot back. "Not to me."

It was hard to know exactly what to make of Espinoza's jousting. He's generally agreeable.

But if it was a genuine peek at the nerves he's already feeling about his second crack at riding a horse to a Triple Crown -- a chance that the 42-year-old veteran might have thought would never come around for him again -- it wouldn't be the greatest news for California Chrome's chances.

After all, the Belmont is what the 77-year-old Sherman keeps calling "a jockey's race." One reason the track has been a graveyard for so many Triple Crown contenders' hopes is, as riding great Angel Cordero Jr. put it Thursday, "It's a place where a lot of races are lost on mistakes. Things happen at the Belmont that don't happen anywhere else. The best horse doesn't always win."

Espinoza knows that firsthand. He has said he tried to "do too much" with War Emblem in losing that Belmont trip to a 70-1 shot named Savara, even though he briefly rallied his horse back into contention coming out of the final turn. And most observers actually blamed War Emblem's loss on how the colt stumbled to his knees as he left the starting gate. (It may be just a coincidence, nothing more, that now the only tiny fault Espinoza ever mentions about California Chrome is Chrome's tendency to -- what do you know? -- get distracted in the start gate.)

Espinoza has been frank that he's never completely gotten over War Emblem's failure to capture the Triple Crown. It's the sort of accomplishment that works an alchemy on a man's career, not just the horse's, and assures him mention among the sport's all-time greats.

But being a jockey who lost a Triple Crown try twice? That's a far different kind of short list, and one that Espinoza would rather not be on after California Chrome races on Saturday.

Espinoza's trip aboard Chrome at the Preakness, even more than his Kentucky Derby ride, was praised by other jockeys as especially masterful. And Espinoza will need to be on the top of his game again even if the Belmont is not a track where the Santa Anita-based Espinoza has historically excelled.

California Chrome will have to deal with a lot as it is. Fresher horses. The longer distance. The strain of three major races in five weeks.

There is no superhorse challenger in this field like there was when, say, Affirmed held off Alydar in 1978. ("Back then we knew there was a Triple Crown winner in the field if we hadn't won," Affirmed co-owner Patrice Wolfson said earlier this week. )

But still, Ride on Curlin did close within a length and a half of California Chrome at the Preakness, and he's racing the Belmont with jockey John Velasquez aboard -- a veteran who's been many times a meet champion at Belmont.

Wicked Strong, which has rested since the Derby, is another threat. Tonalist could be, too.

"And you know how it goes -- if the horse doesn't win, it'll be the jockey's fault," Hall of Fame jockey Cordero said Thursday, shrugging like a man who's been there, done that.

Espinoza didn't exactly throw off a what-me-worry attitude when asked midweek if he's already feeling any nerves.

"No. Not yet," he said.

Then he paused.

"You guys are making me nervous," he tried to joke.

But gales of laughter didn't come back at him.

Just a smattering of polite laughs.

As California Chrome stalks history Saturday, Espinoza has to hope some unkind personal history isn't again stalking him. Out in Santa Anita he works with other jocks who've also lost Triple Crown bids -- Kent Desormeaux and Gary Stevens among them. But when asked by a Daily Racing Form writer if they ever discussed it as a group, Espinoza shook his head no.

"Too painful," he said.