Under the grandstand at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on one of the 360 or so days a year when nobody but the burdened and the hardcore bother with horse racing, four or five languages merge in the air. Bettors sit at picnic tables, hunched over cigarettes and racing cards. The per-capita incidence of walkers, canes and wheelchairs is hugely disproportionate, and there's a guy in a men's-room stall who sounds as if he might very well be coughing up a lung.
Outside, with the San Gabriel Mountains a handshake away, Victor Espinoza is doing something that doesn't come naturally: riding a horse slowly. He is making his way toward the starting gate, past the main grandstand, sitting atop a just-OK 6-year-old named Midnight Transfer, when track announcer Trevor Denman calls attention to his presence. Denman, a South African whose voice sounds like honey after it's been run through a cement mixer, asks the assembled gathering -- calling it a crowd would be both generous and inaccurate -- to wish Espinoza good luck as he prepares to ride American Pharoah to the Triple Crown at Belmont on June 6. He is carrying California's hopes along with him, Denman says as Espinoza lifts his skinny butt off Midnight Transfer and blows kisses to the hundreds of people who stand and cheer. It is difficult to tell if his performance is heartfelt or ironic.
Espinoza is a man whose laugh arrives quickly and often, a sudden burst of helium, and you can't help but laugh along with him. His personality defies gravity, and his voice can turn the most mundane sentence into something close to song. He is one win away from the Triple Crown for a third time, a feat unmatched in horse racing, which makes Midnight Transfer's third-place finish on a Thursday afternoon in late May something less than life-changing. Afterward, as he sits in a plastic chair outside the jockeys' room, talking once again about what it would mean to finally win the Belmont and become the first jockey to win a Triple Crown in 37 years, to rid himself of all these questions and all those disappointments, he seems to be the least encumbered human alive.
Maybe it's the memory of the silence. He has always prepared himself to lose races, so that wasn't the problem. But nothing prepared him for the silence. Espinoza came into the 2002 Belmont on a dead sprint, a mile and a half away from adulation and immortality. Everyone wanted to be near him, to talk to him, to wish him all the best, until War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth.
He was young, relatively new to riding in Triple Crown races, and he couldn't predict what followed. "Poof -- everybody was gone," Espinoza says. "I was all by myself. It was so quiet."
He slumped at his locker, wiped the dirt from his face, ran all of the decisions through his mind. Could he have gotten War Emblem out of the gate faster? Could he have avoided being caught in the bottleneck at the opening quarter-mile of the race? Could he have saved the horse's final burst for later? He had no one else to ask; even the other jockeys treated him as if he were toxic. His valet handed him an envelope. Inside was a check for $85. It's one of many dirty little secrets of a jockey's life: If the horse finishes out of the money, even in the biggest races, so does the jockey. Only in 2007 did the jockey mount fee for the Kentucky Derby rise to $500. Espinoza looked at the check, shook his head -- this is just perfect -- and fought the urge to turn it into confetti.
"I'm just sitting there looking at the check," Espinoza says. "And I'm thinking, 'Only this for all the stress and nightmare and everything else? Come on; it's not even worth it.'"
Last year Espinoza wrote a different version of the same story on California Chrome, a speedy fable of a horse that set up shop in America's heart, but couldn't coax a Belmont win out of his fatigued legs. "Chrome was getting tired in the Preakness," Espinoza says. "I could feel it. He was down a little bit. After I worked him before the Belmont, I was not impressed."
Espinoza is pocket-sized, small even for a jockey, and it's a wonder all the expectations that go along with a possible Triple Crown can fit within a 5-foot-1, 110-pound human. American Pharoah will be the prohibitive favorite at the Belmont Stakes, but 13 other horses have been in this position since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, so Espinoza prepares himself for the silence, for the loneliness, for the racing world to once again sit in mute judgment of his failures. It's just easier that way.
"I'm always prepared for the worst," he says. "No matter what happens, if that horse doesn't win, it's the jockey's fault. We're taking the heat."
Trainers and jockeys track equine behavior the way meteorologists track storm cells. They watch a horse's body language, feel its respirations, gauge its stamina. The language of the trade is heavy on mysticism, as if all those years spent attempting to divine motives and coax performance has transformed the racehorse into a mythical species. A jockey has to know the tendencies of the other jockeys: which ones might jump out early; which ones like to hang back; which ones can stomach chaos at the rail, where four or five horses and 16 or 20 legs might congregate for a high-decibel, 35 mph, 5,000-pound stampede; and which ones prefer to drift to the Married Man's Lane on the outside. He has to know all the horses: which ones start fast but can't maintain, which ones start slow but close fast, which ones are making it up as they go along.
They won't say it, at least not yet, but trainer Bob Baffert and Espinoza have a feeling American Pharoah -- racing's most famous clerical mistake -- is just strong enough to render the strengths and weaknesses of any other Belmont entry irrelevant. But who really knows? Baffert throws his hands in the air and says, "Some horses can handle it, and others can't," before repeating a line from the late, legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham: "Horses are like strawberries; they can go bad overnight."
Baffert laughs at the durability of Whittingham's words, and his laugh carries the same tone as Espinoza's: wry, with a slightly forced measure of self-deprecation and a hint of helplessness. They laugh because they understand the absurdity of hinging their mental health to a thousand-pound animal. In fact, if you remove money from the equation, if you force yourself to ignore the eternal quest for multimillion-dollar breeding rights, you could say this enterprise is among man's most foolish endeavors. So of course they laugh. Why wouldn't they? They laugh because it's a horse, and a horse can pretty much do what a horse wants to do when a horse wants to do it. It doesn't matter how much money has been spent on it or how many people are rooting for it or how much history is riding on it. What it does is what it does.
"You always have to remember: It's an animal," Espinoza says. "He wakes up after a night's sleep and decides, 'I don't want to run.' Or he's in a bad mood and it's 'Forget about it.' What am I going to do then? There's nothing I can do."
It's the end of the day at Santa Anita. Espinoza is still in his silks, brushing off the track dirt that's caked on his face and spitting the remnants of the last race out of his mouth. He's finished after riding two horses, one that came up short -- "that horse has trouble breathing, so I had to slow him down," he says -- and the imminently forgettable Midnight Transfer. Espinoza walked away healthy, which is more important at this point than riding the respiratorally challenged Willy Be Wild to a win in a $30,000 purse on a desolate Thursday afternoon. It's a brutal profession, hell on the joints and organs in the best of times, potentially fatal in the worst. One of Espinoza's brothers, Jose, was forced to retire as a jockey when he suffered brain trauma after being thrown from a horse in 2013. "Every day the most important thing is for me to get out of here safe and sound," Victor says. "And tomorrow we have another day."
ESPINOZA WAS 30 when he first considered retirement: five more years, he told himself. But then 35 rolled around and he told himself: two more years. "Now, I give up," he says. As he speaks, he's two days shy of his 43rd birthday and 16 days from his biggest professional moment. "I make no plans now. Maybe one day I wake up and that's it." Even Espinoza's most accomplished colleagues are impressed with this balance. "I don't know if Victor holds everything inside," says Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. "I just know nothing seems to affect him. He just lets the rain roll off his back."
People around racing rush to tell the story of the worker who cleans the jockeys' silks at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, and how he bent over to pick up Espinoza's silks at Keeneland one day in April and watched his new glasses fall on the floor and break. He was nearly distraught, saying he'd saved for the glasses and couldn't afford another pair.
"It's OK," Espinoza said. "When I win the Kentucky Derby, you'll have brand new ones. Don't worry about it."
Espinoza asked him how much they cost, and a month later, in the jocks' room after the Derby, he gave the man money to replace his glasses.
And for years, a Southern California cancer research hospital named City of Hope received anonymous donation checks from a foundation nobody had previously known. The checks were steady but not huge, always a different amount, as if someone was fulfilling a commitment only they could explain. Espinoza's accountant handled the checks, but the jockey's cover was blown last year in the news conference after the Kentucky Derby, when one of California Chrome's co-owners, Steve Coburn, mentioned that Chrome was born on his sister Brenda's birthday and that she had died of cancer at age 36. Espinoza, visibly emotional, said he was deeply affected by a visit to a City of Hope pediatric floor and had been donating 10 percent of his winnings for several years.
"It's heartbreaking," Espinoza says. "I was in there and I started talking to one little girl and she was the happiest person on earth. Here we are, worrying about whether we can win a race and stressing about all the decisions we have to make. Or people saying, 'This is a terrible day,' because of something simple that happened to them. And then you see these kids, and they're happy. I felt like doing it to help them. For me it's not going to affect my life to give them a little bit."
Last month, after he won the Kentucky Derby for the second straight year, Espinoza called himself "the luckiest Mexican on earth." It's a line that's perfectly suited for his personality -- self-effacing, joyous and seemingly innocuous. When asked to explain what he meant by those words, he seems surprised, as if they're indisputable and self-explanatory. But there's an aspect of Espinoza's personality that creeps up on you: It's easy to miss the sharp edge that underlies the message.
The truth is, he sees more of his sport than most, more than the pageantry and the outlandish hats and the rich swells toasting one another's station in life. He sees the people in the sport who look like him, the ones who clean the paddocks and smooth the turf and drive the tractors that pull the starting gates into place. He sees himself, and the strange responses he gets when he rolls up in his Lamborghini -- "It's nice that your boss lets you drive his car," one person told him -- and the freakish events that led him to this time and place.
"People tell me, 'You were born to be a jockey,'" he says. "They can assume that, but no. I didn't always want to be a jockey. I started out just wanting to survive and have a better life. That's why I don't have dreams; I have goals."
He and Stevens shared a locker at the Kentucky Derby this year -- "You think the first- and second-place finishers ever shared a locker before?" Stevens asks -- and Stevens did a double take when Espinoza came in after the previous race and began to put on his silks. Stevens looked at the digital board in the jockeys' room and said, "Victor, we've got 90 minutes before the race." "I know," Espinoza said.
"I feel tired. I'm going to take a nap."
"Really? Right before the Kentucky Derby?" Stevens asked. "OK, you go on ahead and I'll make sure to wake you up."
"Oh, no. I'll set my alarm."
And so Espinoza took a nap before the Kentucky Derby, and he took a nap before the Preakness, and he figures he'll take a nap before the Belmont.
"I like to sleep," he says. "I know ... crazy, right? I just always believe it's meant to be to win the race, and if I can do the right thing for the horse and make sure he's happy, then it's OK. If not, I move on."
Jockeys are among the most overlooked figures in sports. They're some of the toughest, strongest athletes; "pound-for-pound" is a phrase common around racetracks, and someone is sure to mention they're the only people who have an ambulance follow them as they work. But sometimes they're considered nothing more than a necessary accessory, a human steering wheel. The horse, after all, is the star. "He's like watching Brad frickin' Pitt," Bob Baffert says of American Pharoah. "Everybody wants to get around him. It's like, 'Oh, I just want to see him.'" This is nothing new. Espinoza rode California Chrome to wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness for co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin without, he says, ever speaking to Martin.
"Interesting that I never talked to him," Espinoza says, and there's that edge again, hiding behind the smile. He pauses and looks around, as if checking to see if Martin might be walking through the paddock, ready to make amends. "He never even said thank you to me," he continues. "To this day, I'm still waiting. I hope ... someday."
He laughs, because that's what Espinoza does these days. He has an exuberance that cuts through the indignities and dangers of his profession.
Who knows how long it will last? "I like right now," Espinoza says, as if this moment, this delicate moment of anticipation, is as good as it can possibly be.
PICTURE YOURSELF STANDING at a bus stop amid the frenetic blur of a Mexico City street 29 years ago. The bus arrives, and as you step off the curb and ascend the steps, you're greeted with a most unusual sight: a driver, barely 5 feet tall, weighing less than 100 pounds, 14 years old, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, sitting behind a steering wheel the size of his wingspan. Would you take a seat?
Espinoza grew up on a family farm, the second youngest of 12 children, and got the bus-driving gig with the help of a family friend and a fake ID belonging to an older brother. Still, none of it makes sense, even if you leave room for lax municipal oversight, mostly because it's impossible to look at Espinoza now, at 43, and imagine he could have looked old for his age at 14. He doesn't remember how much he was paid to drive, only that it wasn't much, and what he did earn, he put away to help pay for jockey school. He quit driving the bus after a year, when he realized he might kill himself -- not to mention anyone brave enough to board the bus -- if he continued to go to high school during the day, drive the bus in the evenings and operate on two or three hours of sleep per night.
"It was a big bus, like a Greyhound," he says. "I was not very good at driving it. ... For me, riding a horse in the Kentucky Derby should be easier than dealing with all that traffic."
As a child, his friends would say, "When I grow up, I want to be famous," and Espinoza would respond by saying, "I don't want to be famous; I want to be a millionaire." He draws it out like it's the world's longest word -- "mill-ee-ah-naire" -- and his inflection carries an understanding: This goal has been achieved. He decided to become a jockey, he says, "because I was bad in school. I ask myself, 'What can I do?' Be a jockey, I guess." He came to California at 16 and worked as an exercise rider in the morning and as an apprentice jockey, or "bug boy" in the parlance, whenever he could find a mount. At 17, he found himself aboard a horse he couldn't control, and even though he doesn't remember the horse or the race -- sitting atop thousands of horses over a career tends to blur all but the most memorable -- he remembers the combination of fear and frustration that led him to a decision: If he was going to make it in the business, he was going to have to get stronger. He was going to have to remake his 110 pounds into the kind of 110 pounds that can make a half-ton horse accede to his wishes.
"I said to myself, 'OK, that can't happen. If it does, what hope do I have for my career? None,'" he recalls. "I had to hit the gym and be stronger. I want to dominate the horse. I want to be the one in control, because if they're the ones in control, I'm in big trouble."
He dedicated himself to the ascetic, nearly penitent life of the jockey. With saddle and boots, a jockey is generally expected to weigh no more than 118 pounds, depending on race conditions, and Espinoza weighs 110 to 112 pounds, day or night, Tuesday or Saturday, March or September. He is remarkably consistent, his body a model of compact efficiency. He works out in a gym five mornings a week and after work he runs up part of the Mount Wilson Trail (for an elevation gain of roughly 3,000 feet), always alone, because "nobody can keep up, and I don't want to baby-sit nobody." He eats once a day, after his run, always at a restaurant, never very much; he says his discipline has kept him from having to resort to "flipping," or vomiting to make weight, a practice that is all too common (so common, in fact, that jocks' rooms still have specially designed flipping toilets). And he doesn't spend hours in the hot box, sweating away last night's indulgences. His agent, Brian Beach, says: "The guys who constantly fight their weight are snarly and grumpy. That life wears on them. Victor is one of the few who's always happy." For a jockey, Espinoza's health has been nearly pristine: just two broken bones, he says, as he raps his knuckles on the wooden rail in front of him. He doesn't drink, and his only vice appears to be a penchant for overdoing the weightlifting. "The only time I have to worry about weight is when I feel my arms getting too thick," he says.
He used to belong to a gym with two distinguishing features: a membership heavy on bodybuilders and monthly lifting competitions. Espinoza, who describes the bodybuilders as "all full of themselves with their muscles" decided to enter a bench-press competition. The bodybuilders looked at him and laughed. This guy is competing against me? The rules, however, should have given them pause: the winner was the one who completed the most reps at his or her body weight. Espinoza reeled off 38 reps at 110 pounds to win easily. The next month he entered the pullup competition and won that one too. "I can do pullups all day," he says. "I've never seen so many pissed-off bodybuilders."
The world's luckiest Mexican? Maybe luck has absolutely nothing to do with it.
HERE'S WHAT WE all want to know from Victor Espinoza: What's it like to ride that horse? What does it feel like to sit atop such a powerful animal at near-highway speeds and maneuver it through and around a field of other exceptional horses? What's the difference, say, between American Pharoah and Midnight Transfer?
"With Pharoah it's like you're driving with a jet engine, and the next time you get in a different car and it's got four cylinders," he says. "That's the difference. A normal horse is like getting on the freeway and you want to blow everybody away and you can't. With Pharoah, you can.
"The first time I rode him -- that was it. Wow. This one is special. People asked me, 'Do you have a horse in the Kentucky Derby?' I say: 'No, I don't have a horse. I have something special in the Kentucky Derby.'"
He won from the outside and through light traffic in the Derby, and he won from the rail and all alone in the Preakness. He won in perfect conditions at the Derby and on a sloppy track in a driving rainstorm in the Preakness. Espinoza's goal at Pimlico -- remember, there's no time for dreaming -- was to offset the conditions by getting Pharoah out of the gate as fast as possible, clear the field and make everyone chase. At the three furlongs mark, Espinoza says, he knew Pharoah -- who Baffert says has "the most efficient stride of any horse I've ever trained" -- wouldn't be caught. When the race ended, Stevens weighed 135 pounds, which means he got off the horse with 20 extra pounds of water and mud. Espinoza, leading from the start, got the water but not the mud.
"There are rare horses you can send that hard, use all their speed and then slow them up again," Stevens says. "Victor can turn him on and off like a light switch."
There's one sure thing in horse racing: Every big-time horse comes with a serendipitous tale to add to the lore. With California Chrome, it was the everyman owners with the inexpensive, out-of-nowhere, suddenly hot horse. With Pharoah, it's Espinoza himself, and how he came to be in this position.
Martin Garcia, the main jockey for Baffert's stable, rode Pharoah in his first race and felt the horse was too skittish. "He was spastic in the paddock," Baffert said. "He just lost it." It was the only race American Pharoah has lost, and shortly afterward Baffert removed the horse's blinkers and began using earplugs to keep him from being affected by noise. Still, Espinoza rides Pharoah only on race days. Garcia trains the horse during the week in Kentucky and races another Baffert horse, Dortmund, which came into the Derby undefeated and finished third. Baffert has an established training regimen, and his jockeys communicate with him through radio headsets during rides. The system works, and Espinoza says, "I actually prefer it this way."
Garcia and Espinoza don't speak about American Pharoah. "I only speak to Baffert," Espinoza says. "If I need to know something, he knows." Asked if he and Garcia get along, Espinoza's eyes narrow and his voice tightens. He points to the jocks' room and says: "In there, yes. On the track, no." Asked if Garcia is jealous, Espinoza says: "I'm sure. It's just natural. At this point, there's nothing I can do about it." The setup is not uncommon, but the circumstances have created some uncomfortable moments. For instance, during his interview with NBC after the Preakness win, Baffert thanked his team, mentioning Garcia but not Espinoza.
When will Espinoza see Pharoah next? "On June 6," he says. "Fifteen minutes before the race."
Baffert predicts Espinoza will feel "the psychic weight" of the Triple Crown, but Espinoza says he'll take a nap and be fine. He will ride a few horses before the Belmont Stakes and head to the paddock to renew acquaintances with American Pharoah. He'll try to make sure his horse is as happy as he is -- as impossible as that might be -- and over the course of less than two and a half minutes, he will make a thousand split-second decisions based on experience and instinct and fearlessness. If the horse stays happy and Espinoza's decisions are smart, together they will avoid the silence and hear the kind of sound nobody has heard in 37 years.
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