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Espinoza on the charts with a bullet

Apr 24, 2001 8:00 AM

Five short years ago, Victor Espinoza was paying his bills by riding in front of the hoi polloi at Fairplex Park, a five-eighths mile "bullring" track in a dusty, landlocked town called Pomona. Before that, he was driving a bus in Mexico City.

Today he mingles with Sheiks and Princes, wins Breeders’ Cup races on 55-1 shots, draws unsolicited praise from the game’s all-time money-winning trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, and is on the verge of gaining world-wide recognition if he wins the Kentucky Derby in his first-ever attempt, aboard a talented colt with a serious chance to win America’s greatest race.

Success may have spoiled Rock Hunter, but not Victor Espinoza.

"I’m the same guy I was before," said the happy-go-lucky native of Mexico City, who will be age 29 May 23. "Winning hasn’t changed me and it won’t. I’ll continue to work hard because I enjoy what I’m doing. Winning just makes me feel better."

Not to mention the people who bet on him.

Case in point: the eighth race at Santa Anita April 5. Espinoza was aboard a first-time starter named Freedom Meeting in a $40,000 maiden-claiming race at 6½ furlongs. The filly broke seventh in the field of nine, went wide early from her number nine post position, moved inside for the turn and rallied furiously along the rail to win by a neck at odds of 9-2. At the head of the stretch, her backers had every right to rip up their tickets. But Espinoza didn’t give up. He never does.

"He’s such a hard-trying jockey," says Lukas, whose horses have earned more money than any trainer in history. "I just love the way he gets down. He doesn’t give up no matter where he’s at in a race, which is going to carry him a long way in this profession."

Espinoza, in all humility, concurs. "That’s true," he said. "Like most people, when you first start out and go around the first time, you don’t know what’s going on. You just enjoy the moment. But with experience you become more mature and more professional in how you speak and how you conduct interviews.

Trainers like Lukas have meant a lot to my career. I have made some mistakes, but the trainers have stayed with me and I appreciate their support."

One such trainer is Bob Baffert, who, barring an 11th-hour change, will give Espinoza a leg up on Congaree in the 127th Derby May 5. Congaree, a son of 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Arazi, will be making only his fifth start. He could be the second choice behind stablemate Point Given, but Baffert has never minced words about Congaree’s ability, calling him "a freak of nature."

Espinoza has ridden Congaree in his last three starts, all victories, and the Stonerside Stable homebred continues to impress him.

"It’s the way the way he travels, the way he moves, the way he does everything," Espinoza said. "This horse does everything so easy. He’s very professional. As soon as he gets to the gate, he’s focused on running. He’s all business. He doesn’t want to wait for anybody. He just wants to go. That’s what I like about Congaree.

"Other horses, they could have their minds on other things, but this horse, he just wants to run as hard as he can," he added. "You don’t have to push him to do his work. He does it all on his own, and very easy. I know. I’ve been on a lot of good horses. Congaree reminds me exactly of Fusaichi Pegasus. His stride is so long and smooth. I’m impressed with him, especially considering he’s only run four times. He surprises me each time I ride him, with how much he’s learned and how much he improves every time he runs. Not just a little bit, but a lot. It’s unbelievable."

THE HOMESTRETCH: My Derby top four is a Southern California Superfecta: Congaree, Point Given, Millennium Wind and Jamaican Rum . . . If agent Tony Matos takes on another rider to replace Kent Desormeaux while he’s in Japan, it could be Rene Douglas, presently plying his trade on the East Coast, or Julio Garcia, who has played successful hit-and-run from his native Puerto Rico. Matos and Douglas were a team several years ago, when Douglas won the 1996 Belmont aboard Editor’s Note . . . Hot trainer/jockey combo at Hollywood Park: Cliff Sise Jr. and Alex Solis, who teamed for three wins the first two days . . . Beware the ides of March in California, where horsemen recently had to pay 22 percent of their annual payroll for workmen’s comp. "In Arizona," lamented one trainer, "they pay nothing." . . . Caller One, winner of the $2 million Golden Shaheen at Dubai March 24, is back at Hollywood Park and trainer Jim Chapman says the sprint star may not run again until next year’s Golden Shaheen. . . . Ivan Puhich, who books mounts for 18-year-old riding sensation Tyler Baze: "I’ve been an agent since 1943, and he’s as good as I’ve ever had. He was bred to be a jockey."