In between wide smiles, Victor Espinoza kept dabbing his eyes with an orange towel featuring the logo of the Anaheim Ducks, his favorite hockey team.
It wasn't certain if the Preakness-winning jockey from Arcadia, Calif., had dust in his eyes, or if he was wiping away tears.
California Chrome's rider says he rarely cries, but he had plenty about which to be emotional Saturday as he was interviewed near the winner's circle.
Twelve years after missing out on the Triple Crown in the final leg, Espinoza is getting an improbable second chance. His horse, War Emblem, stumbled early in the 2002 Belmont Stakes and was never able to recover position. After winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the horse finished eighth in the Belmont.
The Mexican-born jockey turns 42 next week, old enough to appreciate the difficulty of winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in succession — in his case, twice.
"This is my second and last chance [at the Triple Crown]," he said. "In a million years, I didn't think I was going to have a second chance. I was very close once. Life goes on, and over a decade, here we go — I'm here again."
If War Emblem pressed in 2002, so apparently did its rider. He admitted feeling the pressure of trying to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
"I think the last time, I took it a little bit more serious," Espinoza said. "I'll probably take a couple days just to relax, not do too much. Just freshen up my mind, enjoy myself and have fun."
After winning the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, Espinoza fought back tears as he talked about what the victory meant not only for California Chrome's owners and handlers, but for City of Hope, a California-based cancer treatment center.
The jockey regularly contributes to the center and has visited children with cancer there. Espinoza, who has no children of his own, said at the time that he contributes 10 percent of his earnings to the center, which also does research into diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.
"The City of Hope has got my support as long as I ride horses," Espinoza said Saturday. "As long as I am a jockey, I will support the City of Hope. Not just the kids there, [but] every human being that has cancer."
Near where Espinoza was being interviewed, a worker had finished painting a weather vane in California Chrome's colors — purple and green. It is a Preakness tradition that the weather vane atop the cupola in the infield is painted the colors of the winning horse's silks.
Espinoza said he knows the next several weeks before the Belmont will be filled with such plaudits for the jockey and his horse.
But he said he learned from 2002 that is too soon to congratulate himself or to even begin imagining that he could win the Triple Crown.
"I will think of that [the Triple Crown] when I get close to the race," he said.
twitter.com/sunjeffbarkerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun