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The people who know the horse: California Chrome's biggest fans

By Michael Martinez, Jaqueline Hurtado and Paul Vercammen, CNN
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Sat June 7, 2014
  • Jockey Victor Espinoza is getting a second chance to win the Triple Crown
  • But he and California Chrome will start at an inside post position -- not their favorite
  • One of 12 children, Espinoza gives 10% of his winnings to children with cancer
  • Back on the farm, those who raised Chrome recall his mother's hardship giving birth

(CNN) -- It's rare enough for a jockey to get one shot at winning the Triple Crown.

On Saturday, Victor Espinoza will have his second chance, mounted on favorite California Chrome.

"I am ready for it this time," Espinoza said. "I am prepared ... to go and see if I can get it done with California Chrome this time."

Espinoza failed to secure the crown with War Emblem in 2002 after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

"He stumbled out of the gate, and after he stumbled out of the gate, that was it. My chance goes to the toilet," Espinoza recalled.

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When he and Chrome vie for their third victory at Saturday's Belmont Stakes, Espinoza will seek to avenge that failure.

The native of Veracruz, Mexico, will bring every ounce of his 112 pounds to bear upon the quest -- as well as the wisdom from two decades of racing.

"I'm going to do my best, and I'm going to use all my talent and brains for that race, all the 20 years that I've been riding and that I learned," Espinoza said.

There will be plenty of glory to share if Espinoza becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner (and the first in 36 years) -- glory for him, for the stag with the dazzling blaze and stockings, for trainer Art Sherman, and for owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn and Perry and Denise Martin.

But coming along for the ride will be Espinoza's brother, the workers on the farm where Chrome was born, the veterinarian who brought her into the world -- and children with cancer.

"I want him to listen to me"

Espinoza donates 10% of his winnings to a children's charity -- the children's cancer center at the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area -- even though Espinosa, 42, isn't married and never has had children.

"I do it from my heart. I don't do it for any other reason," Espinoza said. "The kids with cancer is a very sad thing. They can't do what we can. Life for them is different than what we have.

"Since I saw these children, it changed my life and it changed my way of thinking. I donate, and I will continue to do it until I can't ride horses," he said.

One of 12 children in his family, Espinoza is also riding at a time when his brother Jose, also a jockey, is recovering from a brain injury. Jose Espinoza was thrown when his mount broke a leg after crossing the finish line in a race last year, and is not expected to race again, according to Sports Illustrated.

It seems a lot will be riding on Espinoza's shoulders -- and, in turn, on California Chrome's back.

Any victory is a "50-50" partnership between human and horse, he says. "If the jockey (doesn't) time it right, he can blow the race."

Espinoza's edge is the trust that California Chrome grants him, he says.

"He's an awesome horse. He has tremendous talent and he loves to run, and I think he likes to win when I let him know I'm in control in the race, not him," Espinoza said. "I want him to listen to me, what I want him to do during the race, and I think he likes that."

The drama intensified when Chrome and Espinoza were assigned post position No. 2 in a field that, as of Friday, stands at 11 horses.

That puts them on the inside -- not Espinoza's sweet spot.

"I like to be a little outside," Espinoza said. "If the horse has speed in the race, I like to be outside of him because if I'm not outside it complicates the race for me. I have to use my brains a lot, but it's easier for me to be outside."

"These foals are our kids"

Also behind California Chrome's extraordinary ascent is a cluster of hardworking farm hands at his birthplace.

On race day Saturday, the workers at Harris Farms in Coalinga, California, will abandon their gloves, their shovels, and the small clouds of horseflies in Saturday's predicted 102-degree heat in the state's Central Valley, a national hub for agriculture and ranching. They will assemble in a conference room and cheer for Chrome -- whom everyone remembers as giving his mother a difficult time at birth.

"These foals are our kids," Dave McGlothlin, the Harris Farms manager, told CNN. "California Chrome has a lot of fingerprints on him, and everyone here takes pride in the fact that they probably got one there."

Jeanne Bowers Lepore, the resident veterinarian, remembers Chrome "when he was a follicle." She said that from the start, it was those eye-popping markings that set the animal apart.

"Here you have this brilliant chestnut with his big blaze and these white legs, and he's just very, very pretty," the veterinarian recalled.

But Chrome's introduction to the world wasn't easy.

The mother suffered a lacerated uterus and vaginal wall when the foal came out with his little crooked feet, Lepore said.

After the foaling, the mare was in pain, the vet said. A catheter was inserted and she was found to be bleeding. Medicine helped the mare's clotting.

"His mom stopped paying attention to him because she was just too busy throwing herself down, sweating, crying," Lepore said.

"Early on, it was hustle and bustle" caring for the two horses.

But California Chrome turned out to be just fine.

"There's nothing really abnormal with him," Lepore said.

She believes all that extra care and attention helped Chrome become a better racer.

"He had to stand there when we did things with his mother, so we'd scratch him," Lepore said. "The best way to keep a foal occupied, in my opinion, is to scratch it. That's a reward."

Chrome grew to become very athletic, to the delight of Per Antonsen, who trained him as a younger colt.

"Just everything that he did just comes very natural to him," Antonsen said. "He's just an unbelievable horse. ... I think he's going to win the Belmont. I really do."

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CNN's Stephanie Elam contributed to this report.

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