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Espinoza seeks Derby repeat, this time on Kafwain

Feb 25, 2003 6:07 AM

After each Kentucky Derby, there’s but one rider who can win the race in two consecutive years.

In 129 previous runnings, just four jockeys ”” Isaac Murphy (1890-91), Jimmy Winkfield (1901-02), Ron Turcotte (1972-73) and the recently retired Eddie Delahoussaye (1982-83) ”” have won the classic back-to-back

Victor Espinoza could join that select group on May 3. The native of Mexico City, who will be 31 on May 23, won the Derby last year aboard longshot War Emblem, who has since been retired to stud in Japan.

Espinoza, however, is still riding up a storm in Southern California, where the good-Âí­natured young man has become a fixture among the leading jockeys.

This year, Espinoza hopes to ride Kafwain, one of the Derby favorites, to victory at Churchill Downs. It’s still a long way to the first Saturday in May, but at the moment, Espinoza likes his chances.

"Kafwain has to run a couple more times, but I think he’s my best mount for the Kentucky Derby," said Espinoza, whose English is improving like the horses he rides. "I’m glad he’s my horse, because he’s owned by The Thoroughbred Corp., and we won the Derby last year with War Emblem. Even if it turns out that he’s not my best horse for the Derby, I want to stick with them. They’ve been very loyal to me. You couldn’t ask for more."

Kafwain, a $720,000 Kentucky-bred son of Cherokee Run, captured the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes by 4½ lengths on Feb. 1. He is scheduled to make his next start in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby at 11/16 miles on March 9. The consistent colt has never failed to earn a check in nine starts, finishing fourth the only time he was out of the money. He has four wins, two seconds and a third, with earnings of $625,848. Espinoza has ridden him in all nine races for trainer Bob Baffert.

"Kafwain is advancing every race," Espinoza said. "He has the ability to be the best. He always runs good. In the Breeders’ Cup (Juvenile), he was second (beaten 23/4 lengths by champion Vindication), but he was kind of green, kind of going sideways. He didn’t know what was going on. But now he’s more mature and his mind is on running."

That’s what it will take for Kafwain to win the Derby: focus and development, two qualities not lacking in Espinoza, who has advanced many furlongs in less than a year. If he wins the Run for the Roses this time, the jaws of the racing world won’t drop.

"This year I go in with more experience," Espinoza said. "I know how to win the Kentucky Derby and everybody knows that. Before, they said, ”˜Well, he’s never been to the Derby, he doesn’t know (how to win). I know now, and I’ve been very lucky to have won it so early in my career, after only riding in two of them (he was third on Congaree in 2001). I wasn’t on the best horses, either (War Emblem was 20-1, Conagree 7-1)."

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron once said that when he was stopped by fans in a public place, such as an airport, and asked if he was a jockey, their first question invariably was, ”˜Did you ever win the Kentucky Derby?’

It’s America’s race.

"Every jockey wants to win the Kentucky Derby," Espinoza said. "It’s almost a year since I won and the time has gone fast. I’m ready for this year. I hope I win it again."

Baffert will be seeking his fourth Derby win, having won with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem.

Espinoza has his fingers crossed for Kafwain, which loosely translated from Bedouin Arabic, is slang for "good job."

"It’s funny that both my Derby mounts have been for Baffert," Espinoza said. "I think we’ve been lucky together."

HOMESTRETCH: Medaglia d’Oro will run in Saturday’s $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, his trainer Bobby Frankel said. Jerry Bailey is in the irons, leaving Bob Baffert without a jockey for Congaree. Look for Baffert to name either David Flores or Victor Espinoza to ride Congaree, who is unbeaten in four starts at Santa Anita and on an impressive three-race winning streak. But that will come to an end if he meets Medaglia d’Oro in the Big ’Cap

The decision by Kent Desormeaux to move his tack to Keeneland for the lucrative 15-day meet that runs April 4-25 was not made in haste. "When we rode there a few times last year, trainers asked us to come back this year for the entire meet," agent Tom Knust said. "Kent liked it there and had a lot of success, so it’s been in the making since then." The overnight purses at Keeneland average $615,000 a day, highest of any track in the country.