Both Victor Espinoza and Patrick Valenzuela enter the 137th running of the $2 million Kentucky Derby (Grade I) presented by Yum! Brands hoping to relive the glory they’ve already experienced at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Since giving trainer Bob Baffert the last of his three Derby wins aboard War Emblem in 2002, Espinoza has fallen out of favor in one of the most successful barns in the sport. However, he was aboard Midnight Interlude (ranked No. 8 on Horse Racing Nation’s 2011 Kentucky Derby Contenders list) for the first time in guiding him to a 13-to-1 upset victory in the Santa Anita Derby (Grade I) and gives a simple explanation on how he landed the mount on Baffert's unlikely lone Derby entrant.
“Anything can happen in this business,” Espinoza said with a chuckle. “I’m just excited to be on and happy that Baffert put me on the right one.”
However, one has to wonder if there is still the possibility of a change being made. You see, Baffert’s main man Martin Garcia is without a Derby mount and already in Kentucky to ride Plum Pretty in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks (Grade I). Additionally, Garcia was in the irons for today’s final workout aboard the rapidly improving son of War Chant.
“I’m not worried about that right now,” said Espinoza, regarding losing the mount to Garcia. “Anything can happen. There’s still a week to go and I’m just going day by day.”
After a rough trip in last year’s Santa Anita Derby for Lookin At Lucky, there was speculation that Baffert would replace Garrett Gomez with Garcia in the Run for the Roses. That didn’t happen, but a brutal trip after breaking from post No. 1 and finishing an unlucky sixth as the post-time Kentucky Derby favorite resulted in the switch being made for the Preakness three weeks later, which resulted in a resounding victory.
Does Baffert regret not making the switch a race earlier last year? Maybe. Will that affect a potential decision this year? Maybe. But, probably not.
“It would be exciting a decade later to win the Derby again,” said Espinoza, who is just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday. “That would be something nice. I’m ready for it and I hope that happens.”
Midnight Interlude didn’t begin his career until January of this year and was coming off an eight-length maiden score just three weeks prior to the Santa Anita Derby. Although no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old since Apollo did in 1882, Espinoza remains confident.
“He’s improving at the right time,” said Espinoza. “He’s getting better and better. After the Santa Anita Derby he has a lot more experience going into the Kentucky Derby. Not as much as other horses, but it’s going to be exciting.”
A year ago, Valenzuela, who won the 1989 Kentucky Derby aboard Sunday Silence, was just happy to be getting mounts on mostly cheaper horses in Louisiana, one of the few circuits that would give him a license after a career that’s been riddled with substance abuse related suspensions.
He resumed riding in California last summer at Del Mar and his remarkable success as a 48-year-old competing in the toughest jockey colony in the world has him back in many of the top barns.
With Santa Anita Derby runner-up Comma To The Top’s (No.45) regular rider Corey Nakatani electing to ride Arkansas Derby (Grade I) runner-up Nehro (No. 2), the door was open for Valenzuela to get his first trip to Louisville since 2006.
“Mr. (Gary and Cecil) Barber (owners) and Mr. (Peter) Miller (trainer) are very nice friends of mine and I’m very honored to be riding for them in the Derby,” said Valenzuela.
Known as one of the best speed riders in the sport, he seems a perfect fit for the son of Bwana Charlie, who has done all of his running on or near the early lead.
“I’ve always wanted to ride this horse,” said Valenzuela. “He’s a very versatile horse. He can go to the lead or come from off the pace.”
It’s likely that the furthest off the pace the six-time winner (tops in the field) will be in the Derby is just off the flank of Florida Derby (Grade I) runner-up Shackelford (No. 36), and his final tune-up at Hollywood Park on Sunday simulated that potential scenario.
“He worked really good this morning,” said Valenzuela. “I was laying about two lengths off the leader and came home in 1:00.2. He did it very easy, well on his own. I look forward to a very good effort in the Derby.”
And what would it mean for PVal to ride off into the sunset by crossing the wire first under the Twin Spires?
“You don’t even know. It would be a storybook ending in my career,” he said.
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