When they drew up the fields for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks last week, jockey Rosie Napravnik must have felt like in another life she was guilty of some kind of atrocity. Whatever karmic balancing act was taking place had Rosie coming out of the 13 post in the Kentucky Oaks with Untapable, the overwhelming favorite on paper. Then to make matters worse, her mount in the Derby, Vicar’s in Trouble drew the good awful 1 post. The look on her face when they called his number spoke volumes; the usually stoic, Napravnik could not hide her dejection.
Conversely for journeyman jockey Victor Espinoza, things could not have gone any better. Any athlete that competes on the highest levels will tell you the winning is never easiest than when it’s happening in the moment, everything falls seamlessly into place. Many athletes who are fortunate enough to get a taste of it early in their careers take that moment for granted and never get back to that level again. Since winning the Derby and Preakness in 2002, Espinoza has carved out a good career, but nothing comparable to the level he was at 12 years ago. Then on December 22nd he got the mount in an innocuous stakes race for California breds at a racetrack that in a couple of days would be closed forever. And so it goes in horse racing where jockeys find themselves at bullring tracks years after their best days wondering what happened to the last ten to twenty years.
But like the unforeseeable turn of the karmic wheel, the sport of kings works best when from the little known corners of the world spring the greatest upsets. And so it happened when Victor Espinoza climbed up on California Chrome and effortlessly cruised to a six length victory and hasn’t looked back since. In fact since then the smallest margin of victory California Chrome has experienced with Espinoza was the 1¾ length victory in winning 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.
The only reason for the diminishing length of victory was that the horse had wrapped up the victory and was geared down for the final 16th of the race. For all intents and purposes, the reasoning was to save California Chrome for the second leg of the Triple Crown, which will be the Preakness Stakes, at Pimlico Race track in Maryland in two weeks.
Which brings us back to Rosie Napravnik. After drawing post 13 on Untappable in the Kentucky Oaks, Napravnik used her honed skills as a jockey to guide her horse into striking position. From there she waited her time, made a patient move on the turn for home, and proved what most people in horse racing knew before the weekend even started. That is that the best three year old in the country may have ran on the Friday before the Derby.
With the exception of a few late blooming 3-year-old colts, many of the top contenders for the derby were injured before they could even make the entry box at Churchill. With some time and rehabilitation hopefully the likes of Honor Code, Top Billing, Constitution, and others will be back for the second half of the year. Until then, the main question many will have on their minds for Pimilco is whether California Chrome will face the best colts and fillies if he’s going to go into Belmont to win a Triple Crown.