‘I Have More to Prove Than Before’: Legendary Jockey Victor Espinoza On What It's Like Returning to Racing After Breaking His Neck

‘I Have More to Prove Than Before’: Legendary Jockey Victor Espinoza On What It's Like Returning to Racing After Breaking His Neck

One of the first things you’re taught as an equestrian is that falling off is inevitable, and that it’s not a matter of if, but when it will happen. We come to accept the risk and chance of injury in exchange for the adrenaline and joy we feel when riding. A serious fall nearly cost Hall of Fame race jockey Victor Espinoza everything, but his miraculous recovery and return to riding is a prime example of the resiliency of riders.

On a sunny California morning in the summer of 2018, Victor was going about business exercising Thoroughbreds at the Del Mar Racetrack. That day, the 2015 Triple Crown winner was piloting an up-and-coming colt, Bobby Abu Dhabi, for a training session. Coming down the stretch at a full gallop, Bobby Abu Dhabi suddenly crashed to the ground. Victor was subsequently tossed through the air like a rag doll.

Early reports suspected the colt had a heart attack, but it was later confirmed that he fell due to sesamoid fractures in his leg and suffered further fatal injuries as a result of the fall. Victor sprawled nearby, motionless, his neck broken.

Photo by Tod Marks.

Five months later, Victor was back where he was born to be — in the saddle. A miracle some may say; hard work and a positive outlook, according to Victor.

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During the long months of rehab, intensive physical therapy and re-learning the basics of life became Victor's new full-time job.. His legs didn’t move the way he wanted, he couldn’t control his arms, but could feed himself, albeit slowly. Requiring a 24-hour nurse to attend to his every need, Victor was in a position of helplessness — a place he’d never imagined himself be in as one of the most successful jockeys in history.

“For me it was very challenging because I had to do therapy on every single part of my upper body. It was exhausting,” Victor says. “Everything I had to do was very delicate and that’s probably why your brain is so drained by the end of the day. From my fingers to my arms, my back, to my shoulders, I had to do work on it all.”

Photo by Mike Lizzi/CC.

Prior to his accident, Victor’s days were scheduled and organized. He would wake up, eat breakfast, exercise horses, take a rest, ride races in the afternoon or work out, have dinner, and do it all over again the following day. This schedule is one he had followed for most of his life. After his injury, his days looked very different.

“The first day of therapy was quite a different experience,” Victor says. “Everything was just new and every day was different. I had no idea what my duty would be that day. I knew I didn’t want to be laying in bed. I believed that the longer I lay down, the longer it’s going to take me to get my movements back.”

A Fighter Mentality

Growing up surrounded by 11 siblings in Mexico, Victor dreamt of being a jockey in the United States and wasn’t going to let anything get between him and his goals. So when he was faced with a long recovery — the biggest test of his life — he applied that same determination to retraining his body.

“This recovery for me was such a challenge,” Victor says. “There was not one day where I was taking a day off — no, it was every day for about three months. I would only go from the house to therapy. I wasn’t just doing this because I wanted to go back to riding, but I just wanted to get better. If I didn’t do this much therapy, which it was a lot of work, then it would take me longer to get better, and I just hated that feeling to be disconnected from your body and dependent on others. [At the] end of the day it paid off. It rewarded every single thing I hated in therapy.”

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Victor achieved his New Year’s wish when, at the beginning of January, he climbed aboard a horse for the first time since the fall. It was an out of body experience for Victor, a feeling he took for granted before his accident.

“It was quite different,” he says. “It was a place that I never thought in a million years I would be again. I thought that was that. I was doing my job to get better. My doctor gave me a five percent chance to go back and ride. Day-by-day and after all the hard work I put in, it started to become a possibility again. The doctors were amazed how I recovered. I feel like riding again, it is a better feeling from when I first started as a jockey.”

Photo by Olivia Friesen.

Learning how to ride the second time around was even sweeter than the first according to Victor. Starting all over from square one, he fell madly back in love with riding.

“Honestly, at the beginning, I didn’t even want to come back and ride,” Victor admits. “It didn’t even cross my mind that I would be able to do this again. It’s quite an experience for me learning about how my body works and the way we think when the body is injured. When I felt like my body changed for the better and I was starting to feel normal again, I started to really believe that I could come back [and ride] again.”

A Second Chance

Victor’s addiction to the sport shows through his dedication to get back to the top, a place where he once reigned supreme.

“Everything in life is a challenge and I’ve experienced that throughout my career, but I will never go backwards,” Victor says. “Since I was a kid I grew up in challenging situations — not like this, but in a different way. It trains you that ‘hey, this is me,’ I want to challenge myself to go forward and do better than before. I want to come back and ride better than before. I don’t want to come back to do it for fun. It’s fun, but it is also my job.”

Victor’s record in the saddle speaks for itself: a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, three-time winner of the Preakness Stakes, winner of the 2015 Triple Crown aboard American Pharoah, three Breeders’ Cup wins, winner of the Dubai World Cup, three Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award (ESPY) awards for Best Jockey, the list goes on. Many thought that the accident would deter him from getting back in the saddle, and it’s still a point of contention for those around him. So why come back and run the risk of of further injury?

“People could say that I am greedy for being successful and wanting to win,” Victor laughs. “I like to win races. I just have to have that feeling of winning races. I cannot stop because of one freak accident. I want to stop riding on my terms.”

Photo by Jay Baker/CC.

For riders, major falls can not only break your body physically but can potentially have a bigger impact on your mentality and confidence. A body can heal, Victor is proof of that, but healing your mind is another challenge in and of itself. Victor’s suggests, “Don’t think about the past, think about the future. Think forward.”

Besides those people constantly pestering him about how he feels, Victor never thinks about the actual accident and only refers to it as an accident, not a fall.

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“Whatever happens you cannot go backwards,” Victor says. “Be excited and move forward because really, if you start to challenge your mind, it will trick you. The more you think about the past — forget about it — you will not be able to move forward. For me, I’m starting a new career and that’s it. I’m not worried about what’s going to happen and what happened before. I am just worried about being successful again. You must remember that everyone, not just me, gets hurt. Mentally you have to prepare.”

Victoriously galloping across the finish line is what motivates Victor the most as he’s slowly gaining strength. “When I win with that first race back that will be like, ‘Okay I’m back, it’s normal again,’” he says. “I’ve prepared myself to be better than before. Sometimes you have to face the fact that we can’t be afraid.”

For some, the thought of convincing yourself not to be afraid is a daunting task.

“If you’re scared, then just don’t do it,” Victor suggests. “If you have that little fear, then take more time. When the time is right your body knows, your mind is not going to challenge you, and you will be able to go and move forward.”

Although Victor has been working horses for the past month, putting on his racing silks and blasting out of the starting gates will bring new challenges that will test his mind in a different way. “I’m ready to ride races,” he says. “It’s just finding the right horse to ride. I have more to prove than before. My body is 100 percent so now it’s up to me to do the rest.”

Following this interview, on February 18, Victor rode in his first race since his injury. He left the starting gate on a horse called Gallantlystreaming in the first race at Santa Anita. They finished second. He's since raced regularly throughout the spring.

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Feature photo by Tod Marks.