VICTOR ESPINOZA By Jay Hovdey
Victor Espinoza, a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby and member of the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame, is being saluted by the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation this year for an inspiring career that has continued into the summer of 2019, his 27th year as a professional jockey.
It could have been a retirement party. In fact, odds were good that the Gregson Foundation tribute would serve as a fitting valedictory because of the severe injuries Espinoza sustained on the morning of July 22, 2018, at Del Mar.
While riding the stakes-winning sprinter Bobby Abu Dhabi in a workout, Espinoza was thrown hard to the main track when his mount suffered a fatal leg fracture. The impact left Espinoza briefly without feeling in his limbs, triggering emotions he describes as sheer panic. But even as the use of his arms and legs returned, Espinoza, at age 46, faced a long, hard physical rehabilitation. In addition to a fracture of a transverse process bone of the third cervical vertebra and a herniated disc between C-3 and C-4, the rider suffered trauma to muscles, ligaments, blood vessels, and the nerves leading to his left arm and shoulder.
“If it happens, I’m okay with my career being over,” Espinoza said a few months later, as the healing and rehab of his spinal damage slowly progressed. “My main concern is my health. Even if I can’t be a jockey, I hope I’m going to be around for a while, and there are still a lot of things I’d like to do.”
Thanks to a recovery nothing short of miraculous, all those other things will have to wait. Espinoza continues to add to his lifetime riding total of 3,376 winners through the first week of the Del Mar meet, and when the earnings of his mounts reach the $200 million mark some time this season, there will be only nine active riders ahead of him on the all-time list.
The Victor Espinoza story begins on the family farm near the Mexican town of Tulancingo, located to the northeast of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo. Tulancingo can date its history to 600 B.C. Espinoza was born on May 23, 1972, A.D.
Espinoza was not very old before he knew he was not cut out for farm life. He didn’t mind caring for the chickens, pigs, cows, and horses. But he did grow weary of the dawn-till-dark working day, with a little schooling thrown in more out of obligation than desire.
“All I really knew was that I wanted to be successful at something, but I didn’t know what,” Espinoza recalled.
As a teen he gravitated to the cities, where Espinoza undertook a variety of jobs. At one point, he handled dangerous chemicals in a plant manufacturing porcelain power line insulators. He drove a commuter bus for a private company. He worked in a stable of quarter horses, learning basic veterinary care from the ground up. Finally, because of his size, he was steered toward the jockey school that supplied young riders for the Mexican racing industry.
By then, Espinoza’s older brother, Jose, was heading for a career as a jockey as well. This was the same big brother who put young Victor on a farm donkey and gave the beast a slap on the rump, sending him careening down the road with the terrified boy hanging on for dear life. (Espinoza would tell the story later with great delight, while displaying the donkey-decorated silks he wore to win the 2014 Kentucky Derby on California Chrome, owned by the Dumb Ass Stable partnership of Perry Martin and Steve Coburn.)
Espinoza rode a mix of breeds in Mexico City before settling on the grace and endurance of the Thoroughbred as his partner of choice, and when an opportunity arose to migrate north, he jumped. On Oct. 28, 1993, Espinoza rode in his first U.S. race at Bay Meadows aboard the $6,000 claimer Tranchete. They finished seventh.
Espinoza is the first to admit he was a far cry from an overnight success.
“I still had a lot to learn when I came here, including English,” he said with typical self-deprecating humor. “It’s just as important to communicate with people in this business as it is with horses.”
Espinoza was enough of a prodigy to lead the apprentice ranks at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. As a young journeyman, he was second at the 1995 Golden Gate autumn meet to Russell Baze, who always had a lock on first. The Baze monopoly inspired Espinoza, in part, to move his tack to Southern California, and as the new century dawned, it was clear that Espinoza and horse racing were very much on the same page.
In July of 2000, he won the Hollywood Gold Cup with Early Pioneer, the longest price in the field at 25-to-1, with his hair dyed orange in honor of the colors of owners Dave and Holly Wilson. Later that summer, Espinoza took the Del Mar Oaks with No Matter What, added the Norfolk Stakes with Flame Thrower at the Oak Tree meet, then put a cherry on his breakout season by winning the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs aboard Spain, at 65-to-1.
A profitable relationship with the Bob Baffert stable soon followed. Espinoza and Baffert combined to win major events with horses like Officer, Habibti, Kafwain, and Congaree, while their teamwork hit a peak in 2002 with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories of War Emblem. Espinoza spread his talents to other stables as well, riding champions Sweet Catomine for Julio Canani and Declan’s Moon for Ron Ellis, the Santa Anita Handicap aboard Southern Image for Mike Machowsky, and the million-dollar Delta Jackpot on Texcess for Paul Aguirre.
In March of 2006, Espinoza began riding The Tin Man, 8 years old and an established local star. Together they nearly upended the racing world with a stubborn second in the Dubai Duty Free, a race American horses never came close to winning. Thereafter, Richard Mandella stuck with Espinoza and was rewarded with victories by The Tin Man in the Arlington Million, American Handicap, Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship, and the Shoemaker Mile.
As his 40th birthday approached, Espinoza found himself in a West Coast jockey colony in transition. Younger riders like Joel Rosario, Rafael Bejarano, Martin Garcia, and Joe Talamo were chipping away at Espinoza’s business, even though he remained healthy – thanks to a rigorous conditioning program – and the competitive fires still burned. His mounts earned $4.4 million in 2012, the lowest Espinoza total in a dozen years, followed by a decent recovery in 2013. Then came the heart-breaking Hollywood Park program of Dec. 22, 2013, marking the last hurrah of the racetrack that had witnessed so much American racing history.
In his final Hollywood Park mount, Espinoza found himself going postward in the King Glorious Stakes aboard a leggy, white-trimmed chestnut colt named California Chrome, who had arrived at the end of his 2-year-old season full of more promise than actual accomplishment. Espinoza picked up the mount because Mike Smith, the first choice of trainer Art Sherman, opted to visit his mother in New Mexico over the holidays, which made Smith a very good son. Espinoza collected on the early Christmas gift with a six-length romp.
Over the next three seasons, Espinoza and California Chrome made history, and Espinoza’s career was revived to astronomical heights. Together they won the Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, Pacific Classic, and Dubai World Cup, banking $14.7 million along the way. California Chrome was Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old in 2014 and Horse of the Year again in 2016, as well as champion Older Male.
Espinoza paused long enough during his wild ride with California Chrome in 2014 to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Take Charge Brandi, the Hollywood Turf Cup with Finnegans Wake, and the Del Mar Debutante with Sunset Glow. He also picked up a last-minute mount in the Del Mar Futurity for Bob Baffert, who was running a maiden named America Pharoah, a slick bay colt noteworthy for his short tail and his dazzling workouts.
Their victory at Del Mar set American Pharoah and Espinoza on an adventure unlike any experienced by an American horse and rider. With their victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, Espinoza became the first jockey in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. As a result, an overnight fame descended upon the former Mexico City bus driver like a ton of golden bricks.
In no particular order, among the goodies that flowed to Espinoza from the Triple Crown were:
-The ESPY Award for Jockey of the Year.
-A deal to compete on the popular “Dancing with the Stars” reality show.
-Appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon.
-The George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award.
-Election to the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame.
At the time of his injury, Espinoza was enjoying a solid bond with the John Sadler stable. They teamed for a championship campaign with 3-year-old Stellar Wind, who also rose to a pair of memorable victories over future Hall of Famer Beholder. Espinoza also became the regular partner for Accelerate, who had become the best older horse in California by the summer of 2018. Espinoza was looking forward to winning another Pacific Classic with the Sadler runner. And then he fell.
“I was never in a situation like that before,” Espinoza said. “I’ve never been really sick. Broken bones are nothing, because you can put a couple screws in and they heal. You’re good to go. But the spinal cord, that’s different. Some things you cannot fix, and that was my fear.”
Once Espinoza regained the strength in his left arm and he was confident his cervical damage had healed, a ray of hope blinked at the end of what had been a dark tunnel.
“In any sport, when you are a champion – and you always have to think like a champion – no matter what happens, you have to keep going. Never quit,” he said. “And if your body is capable of doing it, and you think you can in your mind, why not?”
Espinoza plans to convey such a message to those attending the Gregson dinner, which, if nothing else, is a fitting way to forget about the lost summer of 2018. The rider has been a supporter of the Foundation for years.
“Whoever came up with the idea, it was brilliant,” Espinoza said. “These young kids who have their whole future ahead, they need help. And that’s what the Gregson Foundation does.
“When I was starting out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or where I would end up,” he continued. “I was lucky that I found something I could do and be successful at without a lot of school. But I know that is unusual. Getting a good education is always going to give you a better chance.
“We have very smart young kids in the racing world, but many times they cannot develop that because they don’t have the financial ability to show what they can do. What the Gregson Foundation does for them is amazing.”
Likewise, the last half-dozen years of Espinoza’s already successful career have been amazing, and then some. The racing life that enjoyed a renaissance at the age of 41 nearly ended in the summer of 2018, after which a small miracle was required to keep the story afloat. Competing against fellow jockeys who have faced the same challenges, Espinoza was asked about their reaction when he returned to work more than seven months after the Del Mar crash.
“They were happy to see me back, and healthy,” Espinoza said. “But they were also shocked, because they knew how bad I was hurt. I said, ‘Well, I feel the same as you guys. I’m kind of shocked, too!”