Jockey Spotlight: Victor Espinoza

Victor Espinoza’s life has followed the classic “rags to riches” path. At age 17 he was driving a bus to pay his way through jockey school in Mexico City. Now Espinoza is sitting on top of the horse racing world as the first jockey to win the Triple Crown since 1978.

“When I started, it was all about surviving,” Espinoza told the Pasadena Star-News in a recent interview. “I didn’t think about a Triple Crown or Kentucky Derby win. For me, I just wanted to win one race. I could not jump from the bottom to the top so I just took it step by step. Just win one race at a time.”

Espinoza began riding competitively in the United States in 1993 at the now-defunct Bay Meadows racecourse in northern California at age 20. He had a breakthrough in 1995 as he rode 220 winners, which helped establish him as a respected jockey as he moved to the more competitive (and lucrative) southern California circuit. Eleven riding titles later, Espinoza is still regarded as one of the top pilots in the region. He chalks that success up to a strong work ethic.

“I dedicate myself 100 percent, no matter what,” he said in the same interview. “My life has been at the track more than anywhere else. I go home to sleep, and that’s it. Then I’m back at the track.”

Steve Sprecht, a veteran trainer who knew Espinoza as his career was just getting started, backed the rider’s statements up.

“He was just a hardworking kid who was out there every day,” Sprecht told the Star-News. “Victor’s earned everything he’s got, and he’s done it by himself; by his hard work ethic and his ability.”

Espinoza’s persistence earned him a shot on American Pharoah, whom he rode into the horse racing history books by sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2015 to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

“Winning the Triple Crown is one of the great achievements in sports in that it is only being done for a 12th time,” Breeders’ Cup spokesman Jim Gluckson told the Star-News. “What makes it special for Victor is he had two other chances at it; in 2002 [with War Emblem] and again last year with California Chrome. It’s really a testament to his perseverance that he hung in there, and he got on the right horse.”

Espinoza continues to ride California Chrome, whom he just won the Grade I Pacific Classic with at Del Mar on Aug. 20. He’ll be looking to add a second Breeders’ Cup Classic trophy to his mantle (his first came with American Pharoah in 2015) aboard California Chrome later this year.

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