American Pharoah completing the ‘Grand Slam’ at last year’s Breeders’ Cup
PICTURE: Getty Images
By Keith Melrose 11:30aM 14 OCT 2016
USA: Trainer Bob Baffert has revealed that he nearly replaced jockey Victor Espinoza aboard last year’s Triple Crown winner American Pharoah after suspecting that the rider was “getting a little greedy”.
Little over 12 months on from ending a 37-year wait for a Triple Crown winner, which propelled horse, jockey and trainer in the limelight, it appears the stress of celebrity has caused rifts in the American Pharoah camp.
Reponding to claims from Esponioza that there was pressure from owner Ahmed Zayat to replace Espinoza in the lead up to the Belmont Stakes and beyond, Baffert told thoroughbredracing.com: “I came close to taking him off American Pharoah, but I didn’t want to do it. The Zayats didn’t want to do it.”
Baffert elaborated on the reasons for the tension: “American Pharoah was basically an ATM to him. He wanted to cash in on the horse as much as he could. I don’t care if you make money, I want your head in the game and his head wasn’t in the game.”
Baffert suggested that Espinoza’s appearance on Dancing With The Stars, the US version of Strictly Come Dancing, had something to do with Espinoza’s change of attitude.
“I gave Victor one warning and he didn’t pay attention to it,” Baffert said. “The second warning was like ‘All right, dude. This is it. If you don’t change…’ We had a come-to-Jesus moment and then everything was fine.”
‘Big money rider’
Baffert did have warmer words for Espinoza when it came to his abilities as a rider.
“After the Triple Crown, Victor was a different guy,” he said. “He was so much tougher and confident. It made him a better rider. He was a good rider to begin with, but American Pharoah made him a big money rider.
“Before you would go to Gary Stevens or ‘Big Money’ Mike Smith for a big ride,” he added. “Victor used to be the guy who would get taken off before the big race and he had a chip on his shoulder about that. Now he’s that guy getting the big horses. It took a horse like American Pharoah to make him that guy.”