SAN DIEGO – Jockey Victor Espinoza has ridden thoroughbreds for 35 years and experienced the highest highs, like winning horse racing’s Triple Crown. He’s also had low lows, like a scary fall in 2018 which left him with a broken neck.
Through it all, he has kept his smile and positive attitude as he continues a ride on a rather unexpected journey.
“How I got to be a jockey was just by mistake,” Espinoza said. “Because I never even thought of being a jockey.”
Espinoza, 48, said he had no plans of riding thoroughbreds over the ground. Instead, he’d planned to fly high above them.
“I always had big dreams when I was a kid,” he said. “I wanted to be a pilot. I was studying so hard in kindergarten because I wanted to be a pilot.”
Growing up on a farm outside of Cancun, he said his brother took him to the track when he was 13-years-old. There he recalls drawing attention from others because of his small stature.
“I was in the grandstand walking around and everyone asked, ‘Are you a jockey? You’re so small and skinny.'” he said. “And I thought, ‘Hmm, interesting.'”
A thought quickly turned into a trial.
“When I started riding, I was only going to ride for two years,” he said. “Just do my best and ride for two years and than I would quit and I would go back to school. But it never happened.”
Instead, Espinoza spent the next 35 years racing all over the world on the backs of some of the best horses in the sport. He’s won the famed Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes three times each. In 2015, he rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown victory, becoming the oldest jockey — and the first Hispanic jockey — to accomplish the feat.
“I worked so many years for that and I was not going to give up until I had done it,” he said. “I was there twice and I was so close the last time. I always have to think positive. I never think negative.
“Things that have not been done for many years, sooner or later, it’s going to happen.”
Three years after reaching the pinnacle of his career, he came crashing down. In July 2018 at Del Mar, he broke a vertebra during a training accident, which left him wondering if he’d ever ride again.
But he got back up on a horse the following January.
“After the accident, I appreciate it more and I enjoy it more,” Espinoza said. “Horse racing and people, too.”
Espinoza has never married and has no children, but he has donated 10% of earnings to support pediatric cancer research. He’s also embraced a role as a mentor to younger jockeys.
“It’s not easy to be a jockey,” Espinoza said. “It looks easy, but there’s a lot of small details and tricks that I can share with new jockeys that they would probably never know unless I share with them, so in those moments, I am proud of myself.”