NEW YORK (AP) — Since Affirmed swept the last Triple Crown in 1978, Victor Espinoza is the only jockey to get two cracks at winning the elusive title again.
Both times he's left empty.
It was War Emblem in 2002. On Saturday, it was California Chrome's turn to lose the Belmont after capturing the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
"We reached almost to the top," Espinoza said. "Just one step away to get to the top."
California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth, a disappointment to bettors who made him the 4-5 favorite. The Belmont was the third tough race in a short five-week span. His tank was empty.
"As soon as he came out of the gate he wasn't the same," Espinoza said.
Espinoza, 41, was once a bus driver in his native Mexico City. He has won riding titles at four Southern California tracks, winning over 3,000 races and earning $169 million in purses.
With history on the line, the rider did his best to nurse California Chrome through the 1 1/2-mile race. Espinoza kept him on the rail in the early stages. On the final turn, with time running out, Espinoza shifted California Chrome outside to light a spark.
"By five eighths pole (the top of the turn) he was empty," the jockey said. "I tried to move out to see if it would make a difference."
Not with a tired horse.
"I was just waiting for to have the same kick like he always had before," Espinoza said. "Today he was a bit flat down the lane. He ran back-to-back races at different tracks, and against those fresh horses."
At least this time, California Chrome got to run his race.
War Emblem was a different kind of horse, a confirmed front runner who had to have it his way to be effective.
War Emblem stumbled at the start of the Belmont. Espinoza got him back into the race but playing catchup was not War Emblem's game. He finished eighth.
Jockeys rarely get a chance for Triple Crown redemption. Espinoza was handed one when California Chrome launched a six-race winning streak the moment they teamed up. It was a magical run that started in races restricted to horses bred in California. It picked up momentum in the Santa Anita Derby and crashed the national stage in the Derby and the Preakness.
In every win, California Chrome proved responsive to every command by Espinoza. They won on the lead. They came from just off the pace.
"The last time I had been here, I stumbled," Espinoza said. "Today I don't feel bad. California Chrome was just empty today."