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Belmont Stakes 2015: Victor Espinoza on American Pharoah: 'He's the Star, I'm Just the Pilot' [EXCLUSIVE]

First Posted: Jun 06, 2015 01:29 PM EDT
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"It's all about him. He's the star and he's going to put on the show. I am just the pilot," said Jockey Victor Espinoza of the Triple Crown contender, American Pharoah.

Espinoza spoke at the unveiling of a commemorative original painting of his famous racing companion, entitled "American Pharaoh" ("The Dream Team") by artist Susan Sommer-Luarca, at KTCHN at The OUT Hotel in New York. 

"And whatever makes him happy, that's going to be it. If he's not happy, he's not going to perform. American Pharoah has to be in a good mood," Espinoza added.

"You're a good pilot. I'll tell you," said Sportscaster Bruce Beck who helped emcee the evening. "We're happy that you're the pilot."

The painting will benefit The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, a "public charity that provides financial assistance to some 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries," according to the charity's website. Since its founding in 2006, the organization says its fund has given "over $5 million to permanently disabled jockeys, most of whom have sustained paralysis or brain injuries."

According to the PDJF, many of the jockeys were injured while in their 20s and 30s and face decades of living with a disability. They have lost their income and the opportunity to build a financial cushion sufficient to support them and their families.

"The medical needs of our disabled jockeys are great and may include daily assistance from a caregiver. In today's healthcare environment, costs continue to escalate -- posing still more challenges to individuals who courageously test their limits every day."

"I wanted to show the connection between horse and jockey and bring more of the soul out. I do a lot action paintings; I do portrait paintings as well, but I think this is a very special painting because this is a very special dream team. I just wanted to focus on that and their expression, just their connection," artist Sommer-Luarca told Latin Post in an exclusive interview.

Sommer-Luarca was chosen to paint at all three "Triple Crown" horse races for 2007 and 2008, including the "Breeders Cup World Championships" and the "Travers" at the famed and historic Saratoga racetrack in New York, according to her official bio. She was the first artist to be chosen paint at all of these events in a single season and has been honored recently as the Official Triple Crown artist.  Sommer-Luarca has also been the Official Artist of many Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners.

"Well I think every jockey that I have met has been a very sweet jockey ... there is just something about them where they can be such a kind soul and be so brave," Sommer-Luarca added. "I don't know where it comes from, but if you could imagine he (Espinoza) said that he couldn't see on the back of that horse coming down the backstretch with the rain coming down. He's going 40 mph and with all of this stuff going on.

"To me, that is just the epitome of an athlete. You are risking your life and you just have such a connection with that animal that you trust that animal. You are just letting that horse take you through the rain. ... I would think you would panic if you couldn't see what's in front of you. They are just amazing. I just love it. There is just constant danger, but that's what makes them so special. They do this for us, to bring us all of this excitement."

The charitable Espinoza, who is gearing up for the Belmont Stakes today, was grateful to help former fellow jockeys in need.

Espinoza reiterated the connection that he has with American Pharoah during the race and that this horse stands out from the rest like other champions.

"I think that any horse that wins the Kentucky Derby is special because the Kentucky Derby is the toughest one," Espinoza exclusively told Latin Post.  "It's pretty tough to win. They are amazing animals with tremendous talent and a lot of power."

Sommer-Luarca not only paints these incredible animals, but she is also a horse owner and has been surrounded by horses all of her life. She pointed out a few traits that are special about American Pharoah.

"He has a kind eye. He doesn't get over-excited. He moves across the ground. If you watch other horses run, some of them look like they are really pounding the ground and some of them look like they are skipping the ground and some of them look they are floating above the ground. The floaters are the special ones and he's a floater. He makes it look so easy. He's gliding across the ground."

American Pharoah thrived in the muddy downpour at the Kentucky Derby, but according to Espinoza, the forecast isn't the determining factor.

"The weather I don't think will be any issue for me this time," he explained. "I think American Pharoah still runs in any type of track and in any circumstance that the weather is, and for that I am not really worried about it."

What does it feel like when you cross the finish line to claim victory?

"Relief," Espinoza laughed. "It's like, 'you can have relief now; you can just relax and have fun!"

If Espinoza wins, he will make history by becoming the first Latino to win the Triple Crown.

While Espinoza says he doesn't really focus on the Latino aspect to the potential historic win, he sees the sport as universal and zeroes in at the task at hand.

"I don't really like thinking about it that way, but I think for everybody that is rooting for me, they are awesome, man.  No matter what nationality they are, they are like rock stars, ya know? For me they turn me on and they are really pulling for American Pharoah and myself to win." 

The Triple Crown is considered "one of the most difficult tests in sports" where horses race over the course of just five weeks, culminating with the Belmont Stakes Saturday in Elmont, N.Y.

According to reports, American Pharaoh is favored to win, which would make him the first horse to capture the Triple Crown in 37 years.

Check out the exciting Belmont Stakes at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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