California Chrome certainly proved his superiority by winning the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I) and avenging last year's second-place finish, but jockey Victor Espinoza deserves much credit for this victory.
Soon after the break in the world's richest race at Meydan Racecourse, Espinoza found himself in a precarious position. The saddle's girth had slipped back a couple of inches right when the jockey started pushing his mount to accelerate to a position near the front of the field heading into the first turn.
At that point—as the field rounded the first turn toward the backstretch—Espinoza was not overly concerned. He was where he wanted to be and could sit chilly, keeping his weight slightly forward in hopes of preventing the girth from moving more. What lay ahead, however, would require the jockey to draw fully upon his experience and leg strength.
The ideal position of the girth varies among trainers and it is up to the rider to adjust, according to Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Charlie Whittingham, for example, had different opinions about where a girth should be to achieve the best balance. Lukas likes to have the saddle positioned almost directly over the withers while Whittingham preferred the saddle farther back, according to McCarron. California Chrome's trainer Art Sherman had the girth under the withers and in front of Espinoza's knees when his horse loaded into the gate at the World Cup. That all changed two jumps after the break.
"A jockey's legs can become tired more quickly when the saddle is farther back," McCarron said. "I noticed that every time I rode for Charlie. A couple of times when I got to the gate, I would have the saddle moved forward a bit. After the second or third time I did that, Charlie told me: 'I have the saddle where I want it for a reason; leave it there.' "
Down the backstretch Espinoza didn't need to push on Chrome to keep his position at the shoulder and to the outside of Special Fighter and about a half-length behind pacesetter Mshawish. Where the situation got dicier was coming out of the final turn when Espinoza began urging California Chrome to accelerate.
"When you start driving on a horse, your heels come up and you're pushing forward," McCarron said. "That puts backward pressure on the stirrups and the saddle."
As Espinoza pushed Chrome to advance, the girth began sliding more. But what choice does a rider have at the top of stretch other than to keep pushing? As Chrome took the lead 400 meters from the wire and continued accelerating, the girth can be seen inching backward. Espinoza's focus had to be as much on the position of his body over the saddle as it was on the placement of his competition at the most critical point in the race.
"The wire was not coming fast enough," Espinoza said after the race.
At the finish the girth had slipped nearly to California Chrome's flank and the saddle cloth was nearly draped over his hip. McCarron said Espinoza was fortunate the girth didn't slide any farther during the jog back to the winner's circle or it might have felt to Chrome like a bucking strap and Meydan would have held its first rodeo.
Horse racing is a team sport. The jockey needs a fit and talented horse, and the horse needs a strong rider who can adjust with confidence in an environment that can change dramatically in a matter of seconds. California Chrome prevailed in the World Cup under these circumstances because he had the right partner; a rider who knew him well and used his conditioning and experience effectively to avoid disaster.
Victory when everything goes your way is sweet, but victory amidst adversity is greatness. In this year's World Cup we saw greatness.