Compliments make Victor Espinoza feel uncomfortable. He teeters on the brink of embarrassment, in fact, whenever celebrated.
Mention that he was widely considered one horse racing’s best jockeys before he rode American Pharoah to the Triple Crown at Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, and he cracks a nervous giggle. “It means a lot to me and it’s very nice of them to say that,” Espinoza says. He will try to acknowledge the compliment before steering the conversation elsewhere.
Espinoza is more comfortable talking about the trainers he has worked with, the horses he has rode or the kids he has helped. He gained acclaim after the Belmont for donating his Triple Crown purse to City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment center. It’s something that could have been talked about 10 years ago – when Espinoza first began contributing a portion of his winnings to charity. But no one brought attention to his generosity. And it’s not as if he was going to talk about it either. But deflecting the spotlight has become a futile task in recent days. It took all of 2:26.65, American Pharoah’s time in the mile-and-a-half Belmont, for Espinoza’s life to change.
“It changed a lot,” Espinoza says. “I’ve been here in the city [New York]. Everywhere I go, everybody wants to talk to me, everybody wants to take pictures, wants me to sign anything. Any little piece of paper they want me to sign.”
Monday he raced Jimmy Fallon on mini motorcycles. The 5-foot-2 Espinoza was a much better fit. He threw out the first pitch at the New York Mets game on Tuesday. The Giants’ offensive line was there, and they raised him in triumph.
But early in his career, celebrations were at a premium. There was a time when frustration nearly bested Espinoza. He says he won his first-ever race as a jockey in 1993 on a horse named X-Rays – a false indication as to the difficulties of his chosen profession, the most scrutinized in the sport. He estimates three months passed by before his next win. Keep in mind, a given racing card features several races. Typically jockeys have multiple mounts on a card. It all suggests three winless months can seem like an eternity.
“That was kind of a bummer, because I thought it was going to be easy and it was not,” Espinoza says. “I was like, ‘I feel like quitting now.’ I used to ride four, five horses a day and I could never win a race.”
Success soon found Espinoza, pacing him on a track that is certain to end in horse racing’s Hall of Fame. He mounted his first Kentucky Derby in 2001 and planned to retire at 35. Now 43 years old, Espinoza is unable say when he plans to dismount for the final time: “After that I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to make any plans,'” he laughs. “Maybe one day I’ll just wake up and that is it. I’ll quit.”
Espinoza’s lengthy career – maybe even those extra eight years – gave him the experience to make Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown a little less suspenseful for both fans and the man atop American Pharoah. Espinoza and Pharoah battled Frosted until the final straightaway. But Espinoza had known since Pharoah took the lead on the first turn that the horse would be the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. By the time he hit the final straightaway and began pulling away from Frosted, the rest of the country could join in the celebration.
“It’s kind of hard to explain it,” Espinoza says, “but I have been riding for so many years, I kind of know the power, the energy of the horse.”
They are all small in stature, but jockeys of Espinoza’s caliber are big on two things: personality and ego. So Espinoza’s soft-spoken nature is as rare as the feat he and American Pharoah accomplished on Saturday. The Triple Crown is an exclusive club. Twice before Saturday, Espinoza came to the Belmont Stakes having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – twice he failed to win the final race. Merely having the chance at a Triple Crown is something applauded among horse racing aficionados.
Had Espinoza been more the brand of outspoken jockey, the casual racing fan – the one that only watches the sport during the Triple Crown season – may have known him already. After Saturday’s win, they’re making up for lost time.
Women are claiming to have dated him. Media outlets have inundated him with requests. It appears Espinoza has raced himself into sports’ mainstream. Fame is upon him. There’s no outrunning it, even on a horse as fast as American Pharoah.
Check that, especially not on a horse as fast as the 2015 Triple Crown winner.