At Belmont, Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah will be chasing more than horses

Victor Espinoza’s track record at Belmont Park is less than spectacular: in 73 career starts, according to stats compiled by Equibase, American Pharoah’s jockey has won only four times.

Twice Espinoza has stumbled at the Belmont Stakes, the 147th edition of which takes place Saturday afternoon, in attempts to win the Triple Crown – the first time in 2002 on War Emblem, and again last year on California Chrome.

Espinoza, 43, races on the West Coast circuit primarily, and the track at Belmont is known as the “Big Sandy” with quirks that only experience can teach a rider how to handle.

“There are two things a jockey in the Belmont has to get right,” the Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey told the New York Times recently. “He has to get the pace right and he has to know where he is on the track at all times. Those are two things you cannot mess up.”

Espinoza believes his previous experiences have made him a better rider at Belmont. In 2014, he won two races at the track before losing on California Chrome.

“I learned that if the horse is not ready, there is not much I can do,” he told the Times. “I’m not afraid to make decisions, and that’s different.”

Espinoza, the 11th of 12 children born to a farming family in the state of Hidalgo, in central Mexico, has already built up a Hall-of-Fame worthy résumé, with three Kentucky Derby and three Preakness Stakes wins.

But a Triple Crown would put a gloss on his career that few riders could match. Only 10 jockeys have ridden horses to Triple Crown victories – one, Eddie Arcaro – managed to accomplish the feat twice.

During the Belmont, Espinoza won’t be able to pull out into the lead out of the gate as he did at the Preakness. The length of the race demands he conserve American Pharoah’s energy in the early going.

John Velazquez has two career wins at Belmont, and he is trying for a third this year on Materiality, whose odds are currently set at 6-1 and is expected to push the early pace. (American Pharoah is the favorite at 3-5.)

“I will have to be the one who will do the dirty job of putting on pressure,” he added, “but I can’t do too much and sacrifice my horse and have nothing down the lane.”

He recalled Smarty Jones, who lost his opportunity at 2004 Belmont after his jockey, Stewart Elliott, started him too quickly. “He was not patient with Smarty Jones, and it cost him the race,” Velazquez told the Times.

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