Rarely has such hoopla surrounded a $50,000 maiden claiming race down the hillside turf course, but then again, this wasn’t just a $50,000 maiden claiming race.
This was the triumphant return to the saddle for Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza, sidelined for the past seven months after suffering a devastatingly serious injury during an early-morning workout.
The hopeful feeling at Santa Anita Park on Monday, February 18, was palpable. In the paddock, a litany of TV crews and reporters bunched together in anticipation of the Hall of Fame rider’s emergence from the jocks room. Adorned with the green and white stripes of longtime supporting owner Hronis Racing, Espinoza soon strolled past the sea of smiling faces and hopped aboard Gallantlystreaming. He had done this 21,999 times before, and yet he had never done it quite like this.
Espinoza’s injury came the morning of July 22, 2018, when he was riding Bobby Abu Dhabi for his morning workout. Espinoza has worked countless horses in his storied career, but this would be his last for quite a while. While running at full stride, Bobby Abu Dhabi suffered a catastrophic breakdown and collapsed without warning. Espinoza was flung forward onto his head, where he lay motionless for several minutes.
“I don’t even want to remember what happened that day,” he said. “I try not to remember. It was bad. I was in really bad shape. That was the worst accident I could ever experience in my life.”
Initially unable to have any feeling in his extremities, Espinoza gradually improved over the next several days, but a return to any sense of normalcy was not in the cards, not anytime soon, and not even guaranteed. What followed was months of strenuous physical therapy that would have easily broken a lesser man, but not Victor.
“It was not easy, but thanks to all the help and everyone that was around me, they supported me,” he said. “I had to do a lot on my part and just keep going, just never give up, and the only reason I did that (was because) I wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel like before. I wanted to do things on my own.”
Drawn the outside post 10 for the first race of the day, Gallantlystreaming was the last horse to emerge from the tunnel onto the track. Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, the crowd sat with baited breath, awaiting the embattled hero’s return, and when his green-silked helmet met sunshine, track announcer Frank Mirahmadi made sure to welcome Espinoza back amidst a cavalcade of applause.
“It feels great,” Espinoza later said of the support that he had received. “It’s always good to have that much support from everyone. Health is more important. I’m ready to go.”
Start 22,000 for Espinoza began when his filly broke sharply at the top of the hill and initially bid for the lead before settling in midpack as the field made the unique righthand turn. Once she straightened for home, Espinoza positioned her perfectly to begin chasing after the pacesetting Queen of the Track, but though she gained ground with every stride, Gallantlystreaming came up just short at the wire.
“I thought we had a little chance (to win), but the winner was too far ahead of me and too tough to catch,” Espinoza said. “But my filly ran pretty good and I feel great.”
Undeterred with his runner-up finish, Espinoza was understandably happy that he had even returned at all. Moments after dismounting, he already had his sights set on his next mount, which will likely come this weekend.
“I was pretty fit and ready to come back at 100% because I hate that feeling when your legs are getting a little tired,” he said. “But not today. I feel good and I don’t feel like I got enough in this race. I’m ready to go for another six or seven races a day.”
Espinoza’s story is one not at all new to a sport in which peril comes hand in hand with breathing, yet it is still all at once remarkable and rewarding to watch. Espinoza knows how lucky he is to still have the ability to make his living doing what he loves most.
“It’s a lesson learned to never give up,” he said. “Our health is the most important thing and you have to keep going. After I had my accident, it was just ups and downs, like a roller-coaster. There were days I felt good, days I felt bad, days I felt I would come back, and days I felt I wanted nothing to do with racing. But mentally, you have to be strong, and it’s very important to have support from the fans and the people around you. I appreciate that; I appreciate everything. Basically, I appreciate everything in life. I go day by day and continue my career surrounded by a lot of happy people.”