Victor and Jose Espinoza share a career but lead two different lives
BALTIMORE -- On the morning of last Aug. 18, jockey Victor Espinoza went to work on the backstretch at Del Mar, the storied and still thriving thoroughbred race track hard by the Pacific Ocean, 21 miles north of San Diego. It is to the West what Saratoga is to the East: A vacation place that treats horse racing with the reverence that the game had a century ago. Espinoza was there doing a jockey's sales work: Shaking trainers' hands, working horses, taking care of business. It is in the morning that even the best jockeys help themselves stay relevant, walking among the barns with their agents, drumming up new clients or keeping old ones interested.
Trainer Mike Mitchell saw Espinoza and shouted to him: "How's your brother doing?"
Espinoza recalls yelling back, without thinking: "He's good."
He saw Mitchell nod in response, as if relieved. "That's good, that's good," Mitchell said. "I'm so glad to hear that."
Espinoza took another few steps and then stopped. He thought to himself, "What the hell is going on? Why did he act like that just because I said my brother is good?" Espinoza, 41, correctly assumed that Mitchell was talking about his brother, Jose, 44, the only other one of the 12 children in his family -- raised on their farm outside Mexico City -- who had also became a jockey. He had been riding regularly in New York for more than a decade. Espinoza felt a sudden panic. While riding at Del Mar the previous day, and during the evening after the races, he had missed several calls from Jose's wife, Rufina. He had spoken with Jose only two days earlier, so he hadn't suspected an emergency and figured he would catch up soon.
Now he hurriedly called Rufina. "She answered the phone and said my brother is in the hospital," said Victor. "I said, 'Oh, no, no.'"
Nine months have passed since that morning. Victor Espinoza is now temporarily the most famous -- the only famous -- jockey in the U.S. Late on the afternoon of May 3 he rode California Chrome to victory in the Kentucky Derby, and on Saturday will try to win the Preakness here at Pimlico, which would give Chrome a shot to become the first horse in 36 years to win racing's Triple Crown with a victory in the Belmont Stakes on June 7. Espinoza earned respect and affection outside his sport with an emotional post-Derby revelation that, while he donates 10 percent of his winnings to a children's cancer hospital, he's rarely been able to walk into the building because he's so shaken by the sight of sick kids. (He did visit the facility, the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, Calif., this week, at the urging of television producers.)
Jose Espinoza, meanwhile, struggles through every day. He was in a hospital on that August Sunday because early the previous afternoon he had been thrown from his mount, a three-year-old filly named Heading to Toga, just after crossing the finish line. The filly broke her right foreleg and was humanely destroyed. Jose was knocked unconscious and later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, in addition to a broken collarbone and nose and numerous other bruises. It is highly unlikely that he will ride in another horse race. "It's been very hard," says Jose. "Very hard for me to accept."
The brothers were together in Louisville on Derby day. Jose flew in from New York on Saturday morning to see Victor win the most important horse race in the U.S. Their lives remain in very different places, yet intertwined. For Victor, career-defining success comes tempered by his older brother's pain. For Jose, life-changing injury comes cushioned by his brother's climb to the top of the sport.
They were born three years apart on a farm in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, to the north of Mexico City. Victor is the youngest of five boys, Jose the next-youngest. They did hard labor every day and learned to ride horses (in Victor's case, fearfully and reluctantly) on the farm, but did not stay into adulthood. At 16, Jose moved to the resort city of Cancún on the east coach of Mexico, where he was hired to work on a farm that raised and trained quarter horses for competition. Victor, at age 14, moved to Mexico City, where he lived sometimes with a sister, sometimes alone and always by his wits.
"It was dangerous, it was hard," says Victor. "Sometimes there was food to eat and sometimes I didn't have any food to eat for a while. People would get hurt near me. It was not an easy life, but I wanted to be on my own. I thought about going back home, but I never did go."
Jose called him in 1987, when Jose was 18 and Victor was 15. Jose had been promoted to a position as the quarter horses' principal trainer, despite having little background for the job. He needed Victor's help. "I called Victor and said, "I have a new job training quarter horses,'" recalls Jose. "He said, 'You're training horses?' It was a big surprise to him." Victor laughed re-telling the story. "We were both little kids, training these horses. Jose needed my help." They worked long hours and had great fun together, learning as they went along. Victor did half the duties of a veterinarian, learning not just how to make a horse run fast, but also how to make a horse well. The brothers went together to Mexico City with a string of horses and Jose won a race on his very first try. He stood in the winners' circle and Victor snapped a picture of him.
Within a couple of years, Victor had been recruited to ride thoroughbreds at Mexico City's Hipódromo de las Américas, the track at the top of the sport in his home country. A year later he moved to the United States with the help of his mentor, Arturo Garcia. Victor started in Northern California, where he so deeply despised the cold winds that he would cry atop horses while hurtling down the backstretch. "San Francisco," he says. "That was not for me." But he did well, riding for veteran trainers like Art Sherman, who would later seek him out and put him on California Chrome. By 1994, Victor had made the move to Los Angeles, the major leagues of thoroughbred racing.
Jose, though three years older than his brother, was three years behind in his career. He had also begun riding thoroughbreds in Mexico City and moved to Southern California in 1995. Less gifted than Victor, Jose struggled. He moved his tack to Arizona and then to Canada, seeking his level. In late '97, he had moved to New York, which was every bit as competitive as California. From '97 through 2012, Jose averaged 48 wins per year, with a career high of 83 in 1999. Think of him as a .250 hitter. Meanwhile, from 2000 to '06, Victor averaged 193 wins per year and twice finished third in the nation among jockeys in total earnings. He won the Derby and the Preakness in '02 on War Emblem, two years after he won the Breeders Cup Distaff on Spain. He was a solid .300 hitter, with power.
And while jockeys are frequently hurt, Jose was injured more than most, and more seriously: Two broken legs, and by his count, at least three head injuries before the Saratoga spill last summer. Victor noticed: "I was always telling him, the last few years, your health is important," he says. "I know I'm the youngest brother in the family, and Jose is my older brother, but sometimes I feel like I'm his older brother."
Doctors needed several weeks before advising Jose that his head injury should probably preclude his return to riding. Jose resisted, but he has struggled with headaches and balance issues. He was struck with debilitating headaches on a November trip to visit his mother in Mexico, and again on a winter drive to Saratoga. He says there have been other incidents. "I have good days and I have bad days, you know?" says Jose. "Those times when I had problems, it was very, very scary."
In the months following his accident, Jose did not watch any horse racing. He would talk regularly with Victor, but they would not discuss riding or his uncertain future. "I would say to him, 'Hey, you're sitting around the house all day doing nothing, must be nice,'" says Victor. "I would try to make him laugh." On the day before the April 5 Santa Anita Derby, Victor called Jose and told him about California Chrome. Jose watched the race and called his brother to rave about Chrome's dominant performance in his final Kentucky Derby prep. "That horse is crazy," said Jose. "You never see a horse run off [and win] like that."
Jose came to Kentucky on the morning of the Derby, and after California Chrome's victory, sat in the back row at Victor's press conference. On that day, after watching Victor's triumph, Jose vowed that he would do everything possible to get back on horses. Eleven days later, in a phone interview, he was far less certain. "Maybe," he said. "I'm not too sure." The father of two children (son Luis, 19; daughter Ali, 18), Jose faces difficult decisions and, potentially, major life adjustments.
For now, he draws strength from his brother's work. Or perhaps it just a welcome distraction. Jose says that barring a severe setback, he will be in Baltimore to watch the Preakness. Together the Espinoza brothers chase old memories. After the Derby, it was Jose who held a camera and pointed it at his little brother, like Victor had done for him more than two decades earlier in Mexico City. "Remember Victor?" Jose said. "You took that picture of me after my first race? Now I am taking a picture of you."
And the two of them laughed again like little boys.