In the lead up to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, Santa Anita Park’s XBTV sat down with Hall of Fame rider, Victor Espinoza, to get his thoughts on not only Accelerate, favored in this year’s Classic, but also to hear how he’s doing, just over three months after a fall that sent him into the hospital and possibly on to a new path in life.
How hard is it for you to be away from the track? You’re down here in Del Mar, isolated and removed.
“It’s not that hard because of my situation. Obviously, if I was healthy and just away from the track it would be different. But, right now, I’m not capable of doing it. I only really watch the big races. I just want to see what’s happening and I’m curious who wins.”
If you get the go ahead, say in an ideal world, and they said ‘January 1st Victor, you’re cleared to ride.’ A lot of people would say, ‘He’s Victor Espinoza. Does he need the money? Why does he want to risk his life?’ If you were cleared, would you want to come back and ride?
“If I’m 100%, and the doctors think there isn’t a risk for me to come back and do what I’ve done for many years, I would like to come back and ride. Why not? If there isn’t a risk to my body, yes.”
But there’s always a risk.
You saw the risk first hand. You were lying on your back, not moving your legs. Is that something you would risk going through again?
“In life everything is a risk. Even if you walk out of the house there’s a risk. You risk your life basically, even driving. So, I cannot have fear of what will happen in life.
“We don’t know the future, I wish I knew. This is the only thing I’ve ever done in my life. Although I never grew up on the track, it’s all I know. If my body is able to do it and I feel pretty good and the doctors tell me, ‘You’re good to go,’ or, if they say, ‘Okay, this is good and no matter what happens, your injury is not going to get worse,’ then yes.
“If I come back to ride, I want to make sure that I do the same thing as before.
“I’ve broken bones before and they heal, sometimes harder than before. So if they tell me there’s no risk of injury, why not? You can get hurt, yes. Basically, that’s life. Being a jockey, you’re going to get hurt. You just don’t know when.”
It’s only a matter of time.
“Just a matter of time.”
A matter of time…What happens if say you got a leg up and you weren’t the same Victor on a horse. Because sometimes, guys will be scared and it takes a really strong person to admit that they’re scared. You’ve never been scared in your life. I’ve watched you for years, but you don’t really know until you try.
“Sure. I mean there’s always a fear in going in, but I’m not afraid because horses, they’ve never done anything to me. The horses, they’ve provided good memories.
“Horses are such powerful animals, but they don’t do anything to you on purpose. They’ve never done anything to me so why should I be afraid of them? They’re just happy animals. They just want to eat grass and run fast. Well, some of them (laughing).”
Some of them.
“Yeah, some of them (laughing).”
You’ve talked about how you love horses but you’ve also said you were always a little bit afraid of horses.
“Sure, of course. I’m afraid of horses, yes. I’ve always been afraid. To this day I love horses, but I also have respect for them. It’s not because they’re trying to hurt you, it’s just that they’re powerful animals and sometimes they want to play. If you’re in the way they can hurt you, but never intentionally. Just by them playing you could get hurt, and for that reason I have respect for them.”
Do you have a fear of falling?
“Fear of falling? Of course I have that fear. It’s always been my fear since day one, not to be on anymore, falling off. Any small fall and you can damage your life in seconds and it changes forever. It’s scary to think about.”
Do you want to come back?
“Do I want to come back to ride? Sure, why not? I do if I’m 100%.”
Is it that you want to come back, or that you want to prove that you can come back?
“I don’t have to prove anything. If I come back it’s because I’m 100% and I want to.”
You’re a smart guy and you say the doctors tell you it’s going to be okay…But, guys like Laffit, guys like Migliore, what do you think they’re going to tell you?
“First of all I never look at anyone else’s life. I’m looking out for my life right now and basically, if the doctors tell me, “Okay, you’re good to go,” I’ll trust them. I will have to trust my doctors and believe in them to tell me if I’m capable to do what I’ve always done.”
What do you think the chances are that you actually come back?
“I don’t know. I can’t even think about what the chances are because I don’t know. I’m going by the doctors. If they say, ‘That’s it. You’re never going to come back.” Then I’m fine with that. If I come back, that’s fine too. I will motivate myself; I’ll get in the gym, lift weights, run, whatever. Whatever I have to do to come back to be 100%.”
If you walked away because the doctors say, ‘You know Victor. You probably shouldn’t ride again,’ are there things left undone? Are there things you still want to accomplish?
“I don’t have to accomplish anything. If the doctors told me I couldn’t come back right now, I don’t have to accomplish anything. Obviously, I’d have a job to win more races. That’s about it. What races? Any of them. Everyone is probably thinking another Kentucky Derby or maybe the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but other than those I don’t have anything to accomplish. I’m just thankful that I’m walking.”
How hard is it for you to not be as physically fit as you were?
“It’s not that hard because I’m injured. If I wasn’t then it’d be very hard, but it’s not because I have to really pay attention to my body. I’m not like those people that want to play tough, who think they can do it. No, I do what my body wants to do. If my body shuts down for the day, then I’m done. I go take a nap or I go to sleep until the next day.”
So if you retired tomorrow, what would you do?
“If I retired tomorrow, what would I do? Probably just go lay down by the beach and relax. I don’t know, maybe go to New York, go to the snow for a few weeks. That would be my life, travel. That’s the life. I’ve always loved to travel.”
You wouldn’t be bored?
“Bored? Why would I be bored? You know life is full of energy, full of things that you can do. It all depends what you focus on. I guess, for me, maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up at the track. A lot of other workers, they work on the track and they’re afraid to go and do other things. For me, it’s different because the whole world is just so beautiful. Let me tell you, if travel was free, you would never see me again. I wouldn’t even talk to you (laughing.)”
So you’re just going to disappear and travel the world?
This didn’t just affect your job; it affected your entire life. You were lying there, not feeling your legs. You knew this was going to be a possible life change. Have you talked to anybody about that? There’s got to be a lot of fear involved.
“You know what; the first time I ever talked about my feelings was in rehab when I had my first interview since the accident. It wasn’t easy for me because to talk about it…I got a little emotional.
“It was the first time I cried too, because it wasn’t just fear it was not being able to do things that I wanted to. I was getting ready to prepare myself for Del Mar and to the win the Pacific Classic.
“My family was really there for me, and my girlfriend. They gave me a lot of support. Only after two months did I start to think about it. It really happened right before the Pacific Classic because a lot of people asked, ‘Are you going to be ready for the Pacific Classic?’ I started talk about that and I knew the answer was ‘no.’
“It was impossible for me to have a conversation with everyone. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not. It has to be the right time and the right moment to be able to talk about it and not get really upset.
“So really, it needs to just be a normal and happy conversation, to be able to have those conversations. I had the support. It’s important to have support from the people that you really care about, and that care about me. I’m thankful that I have those people that really have my back and give me support.”
You said one of your brothers just left. Did he come out a couple of times or was he staying with you?
“One of my brothers lives in Cancun. He came here and the other brother, from New York, he came and so did my girlfriend. So, all three came here at the same time. My brother from Cancun stayed for a month and a half, then went back.
“My brother from New York, he left for a week, but then came back with his wife and stayed for a long time. I was ready to tell them to leave (laughs), but we had a lot of fun. We never talked about my accident, just had fun, laughed and we cooked every day. No, they cooked. I don’t cook, I just eat.
“We talked about all the stories of how we grew up and stuff. It was just fun. I forgot that I was injured and I never had any pain, so that was good.”
You’ve been eating a lot lately?
“I’ve been eating a lot, yes. In the beginning you’re sick, so you have to eat a lot so you can recover quickly. Sometimes I’ll eat healthy, sometimes not. When I was in rehab, when I was ready to leave, they asked me what I would want to eat now that I could have anything, thinking their food was bad. I thought it was good.
“I came home and they asked me if I wanted salad. I said, ‘Forget about it. I don’t even want to look at salad.’ I’ve been eating salad for a very long time now. I don’t want to eat healthy at all this time.”
When you walk into this house, with all its memorabilia and gifts from fans, it’s hard not to believe that you are Victor Espinoza, the jockey. What does that look like if you’re Victor Espinoza, not a jockey?
“Happy. Happy and just enjoying life and having fun.
“You know what? Life is too short. Things go away in a second. Life is fun. I have to be thankful for just walking right now. I’m alive. Jockey, or no jockey; to me it’s no different. Life goes on…and it can also change in a matter of seconds.
“As a jockey, any jockey, not just me, their life can change in just a matter of seconds. Not hours, not days, but seconds, and it’s hard for some. For me, it’s not hard because I appreciate life and how to live your life every day. I just keep myself busy.
“I’m thankful and I’m willing to do things I’ve never done before because basically I’ve dedicated myself to my career for so many years. This is the first time I’ve been off the track for four months since I started riding. So it’s quite different, but it’s kind of fun and I like it.”
At two in the morning when you’re lying there, the longer it takes for you to get back is it getting easier or harder?
“I think it’s getting easier because I know I’d be recovered 100% if I come back. I’m not gonna rush myself to get back sooner because I’d feel like I’m not really ready to go. The longer I wait to come back it will be easier. I’d be stronger.”