As California Chrome's exercise rider, Willie Delgado has the chance to ride a potential Triple Crown winner every morning, and the 46-year-old couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity.
"And for me to have done it all - I was a jockey, then I was a trainer, I was an agent; I did it all - to get out there and to get on this horse and have them trust me with this horse and bring out this amazing dream, I just can't say enough," said Delgado on Thursday. "I thank him every day. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here. I'm really thankful to [trainer] Art [Sherman] now. A lot of people who have been on the track longer than I have never had the opportunity to be here. I just can't thank him enough."
Delgado, 46, was winless in 45 starts as a jockey in 1993 and 1994 and as a trainer won six races from 116 starts from 2009-2013 while competing primarily in Maryland. His brother, jockey Alberto Delgado, has won 2,923 races going into Thursday and was second aboard Oliver's Twist in the 1995 Preakness. Alberto Delgado was riding in Southern California last year and had the mount aboard California Chrome when he advised Willie to make a career change.
"I never really had the nice horses and I got burned out, and my brother was riding in California," said Willie Delgado. "[Alberto] said, 'I have a horse I would love for you to gallop.' So I went out and checked it out, fell in love with California, came back to Maryland, got rid of all of my horses, and moved over there. But at the time, [Sherman] didn't need me, actually, so I took a job with somebody else. That didn't work out. And then [California Chrome's exercise rider] went on vacation, and, tada. I got lucky."
Alberto Delgado rode California Chrome for five of the colt's first six starts, including a debut win at Hollywood Park and a score in the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar. However, Alberto Delgado was replaced by Victor Espinoza after California Chrome finished sixth in both the Del Mar Futurity and Santa Anita's Golden State Juvenile. Since the rider change, California Chrome has won six straight races, including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
"It's horse racing," said Willie Delgado. "[Alberto] broke [California Chrome's] maiden [and] won a stake on him, but then he had two races where he had bad luck. When you have a nice horse, you can't count out bad luck. It doesn't make any difference how good of a rider you are: if you have bad luck, changes have to be made."
"It was bittersweet for me the first couple of wins we had with [California Chrome after the rider change] because it would have been great if my brother would have been on him, but once he won the San Felipe - he didn't tell me directly - he told my mom and my sister that he was proud of me," Willie Delgado continued. "He came up to me after the Preakness and said, 'You've done a good job, little brother.' That made me feel a lot better. At least one of us got to get here. And he's the reason I moved to California, so I thank him. If we do win the Triple Crown, I'm going to enjoy it with him."
The opportunity to ride California Chrome has come [at] a steep cost for Willie Delgado, who now finds himself far away from his 6-year-old daughter, Savannah, who has remained in Maryland.
"There comes a time in your life when you hit a plateau and you have to go somewhere else to get to your full potential, and I'm glad that I did," said Delgado. "I had to leave my daughter behind so I could fulfill my dream, but at least she got to be with me for the Preakness. I'm hoping I can get her here for the Belmont, but it was too hard saying goodbye again, so I don't know if I'll be able to do that."
But for Delgado, it's been a price worth paying.
"At least I can say I made it," said Delgado. "Like they said, 'If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.' Let's see if we can make it here this time around."