ELMONT, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — The Belmont Stakes is the the kind of place where luck looms large. But the team behind American Pharoah is hedging its bets by locking in a little help from above.
Jockey Victor Espinoza, who is hoping to make history by riding the first Triple Crown-winning horse in 37 years, took a spiritual journey in Queens on Thursday, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff exclusively reported.
Espinoza visited the grave site of Grand Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
Hundreds of thousands come to the cemetery every year 24/7 to pray.
Espinoza opened a prayer book, recited psalms, wrote out his own message and added his to a mountain of prayers at the sacred site.
“It’s always ask for the most important, (which) is health,” Espinoza said. “Without health, we cannot do anything.”
Espinoza is not Jewish, but spiritual. He said after receiving a blessing from a rabbi at the Preakness last month, he scheduled the detour from his regular race prep for the Belmont.
“So much energy right here,” he said. “It would kind of build you up right here. It’s like good energy drinks.”
“The resting place of a righteous person is considered a sacred place,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson of Chabad.org.
“He believes with God’s help and the rebbe interceding for him that’s he’s going to be very successful and very safe,” said Mike Weitz, Espinoza’s publicist.
Prayers for a pharaoh may be a first at the site, but worshipers welcomed Espinoza.
“Jewish, not Jewish — no matter what your faith is, it’s always good to turn to God,” one man said.
American Pharoah’s owners also answer to a higher authority. The Zayats were raised in Egypt as observant Jews. On race day, which is the Sabbath, the family will abstain from driving in observance and will camp overnight in luxury RVs on Belmont’s grounds.
“We have a value system in our life, and that is a priority in our family,” said Ahmed Zayat, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. “God comes first. (Then) family, country and all the others — all the others, you can put horse racing in them.”
If prayers are answered and American Pharoah delivers a long-awaited miracle, Espinoza said it’s OK with him if a pilgrimage to the rebbe’s grave site becomes a new Belmont Stakes tradition.