For Victor Espinoza, who celebrates his 48th birthday on May 23, winning races is something he’s been doing since 1993. His 3,415 career wins include the Kentucky and Preakness in 2002 on War Emblem, and, again, in 2014 on California Chrome then going on to win the Triple Crown on American Pharoah in 2015. More than a quarter century later, the affable native of Mexico is still winning with a 21% win average and 52% average in the top three in this 2020 truncated racing season.
On April 18, in a masterful display of horsemanship, Victor guided Ce Ce to a dramatic head victory over Ollie’s Candy in the talent-laden G1 Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park. It was his first and only mount in nearly a month, since he rode in four races at Santa Anita March 22, winning the second on Tiz Wonderfully.
When Espinoza piloted two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome to victory in the 2016 Dubai World Cup he did it with his saddle slipping all the way.
The seasoned jockey will be back IN the saddle Friday when Santa Anita resumes fans-free live racing for the first time since March 22. Espinoza is named to ride four horses on the nine-race card that drew a hefty 97 entrees and has a 12:30 p.m. first post time.
“Victor has a home in Sierra Madre and one in Del Mar,” said his agent during a historic seven-year run, Brian Beach. “He works out locally when he’s at Santa Anita, but since it’s been closed during the pandemic, he’s been working at his Del Mar home where he has a gym set up.
“His routine keeps him very fit. He’s very diligent about it and that’s good, because in this current situation, mounts have been few and far between, and I don’t imagine we’ll be riding the card when we resume racing, probably three or four horses a day at the most.”
Espinoza has favored working out in the serene setting at Del Mar, “where it is quieter, and there aren’t many people on the streets. I probably run four or five miles and don’t have to worry about bumping into anybody.
“I have pretty much all the workout equipment I need at my home. How much time I put in every day depends. I have a training program in place which includes weights and body-building exercises and if I’m feeling good, it could take me an hour; if I’m feeling tired, maybe two hours.”
Like most of the hoi polloi, Espinoza has adjusted to the social restrictions set forth during the Coronavirus virus pandemic.
“The whole country is in the same situation, not just here,” he said. “All the changes we make are going to be for the best, because our safety and health are the top priorities. No one knows how long it will continue, so we have to implement all the precautions we can and go from there.”
In the past, Espinoza has overcome considerably more than winning a race from right off the bench. He suffered career-threatening vertebra injuries in a training mishap at Del Mar on July 22, 2018, enduring pain, perseverance and puzzlement for seven months before he recovered and resumed riding on Feb. 18, 2019.
That was then and this is now and Espinoza continues to soldier on, although his recent mounts can be counted on one hand.
“He worked some horses at Santa Anita last weekend, and outside of Ce Ce in the Apple Blossom, that was the first time he left his little cocoon in a while,” Beach said. “He rode just one horse and it worked out well, but he showed winning the World Cup in 2016 he’s got a knack for that.”
Beach presently has two stakes mounts pending for Espinoza on Santa Anita’s blockbuster card on June 6, featuring seven lucrative events highlighted by the $400,000 G1 Santa Anita Derby. “Right now,” he said, “we have Cistron lined up for John Sadler in the G2 Triple Bend and Midcourt for John Shirreffs in the G2 Gold Cup.”
If there are more, Espinoza will welcome them. The “R” word is not high on his chore chart even as age 48 approaches.
His awards and achievements are milestones every rider would envy, foremost among them being the regular rider of California Chrome, gaining Hall of Fame membership in 2017 and sweeping the Triple Crown on American Pharoah in 2015.
Maturity and appreciation are complementing partners that come with impervious aging, and Espinoza is cognizant of that.
“When I was 21, I was more focused on improving my career,” Espinoza said. “But now I appreciate each victory even more, in addition to all that I’ve accomplished.”
Passion for his vocation remains keen, although today’s “new normal” provided an unanticipated but welcome opportunity to smell the roses.
“You can talk about retirement and make all the plans in the world, but life changes. Every day is different, every race we ride is different.
“Honestly, everyone thinks about it, because sooner or later all good things come to an end, no matter who it is. But for me right now, no. I just go day by day.”
Edited Press Release
Photo: California Chrome in the winners circle of the 139th Preakness Stakes. Jockey Victor Espinoza up, trainer Art Sherman at horse’s shoulder, behind him is son and assistant Alan Sherman (wearing glasses) and José Luis Espinoza, Victor’s brother. Credit: Maryland GovPics