On June 6, 2015 the extraordinarily beautiful American Pharoah crossed the finish line into history, carrying the heart of a nation with him. Becoming only the twelfth horse in history to wear the mantle of the Triple Crown, he led from the starting gate and left no doubt of his intent. To paraphrase the Sunday New York Times, coming out of the wide final turn at Belmont, as American Pharoah squared his shoulders for the long stretch run that has destroyed the hopes of so many, jockey Victor Espinoza dropped the reins of his colt and let the big bay take him home.
The California trio of American Pharoah, Espinoza, and trainer Bob Baffert had become the rst to capture the Triple Crown trophy in 37 long years. And at age 43, Espinoza became the oldest jockey, as well as the first hispanic jockey, to win the Triple Crown, calling himself as he famously did while pouring rainwater out of his boot after the Preakness, “the luckiest Mexican alive!”
Espinoza was born on a dairy farm in Mexico, the eleventh of twelve children. When he was 15, he left to assist his brother José, a quarter horse trainer. He entered jockey school at age 17, paying for it by driving a bus in Mexico City, and within a few years he was racing thoroughbreds at the track there.
In 1990, 18 years old and unable to speak English, he moved to California’s Bay area. Starting out very poor, he lived in the tack room at the stables, and was described as a hardworking kid who was out there every day. But he kept getting better and better, and soon people began to see his talent.
By the mid-1990s he had moved his tack to Los Angeles, where his career began to take off, and in 2002 he had his first chance at the Triple Crown aboard War Emblem. In 2014 he was asked to ride California Chrome, who just couldn’t seem to get into the winner’s circle. Like Frosty the Snowman who was brought to life under that ‘old silk hat,’ California Chrome came alive under Espinoza. And in 2015, Bob Baffert made the now historic decision to place him on American Pharoah.
But this diminutive five foot two, 112 pound man with the sincere and engaging smile, has a heart that far out- strips his size. About ten years before California Chrome, Espinoza was having lunch with a friend, and his friend suggested that they visit City of Hope, the renowned cancer center located in Duarte, in Southern California.
Espinoza was so saddened by what he saw, and so disturbed by the tragedy of children who would be unable to fulfill their lives, that he was moved to tears and couldn’t stay. He went back to the car to wait for his friend.
In the post-Derby California Chrome press conference ten years later, Espinoza talked about it publicly for the first time. “Since that time, I have donated 10% of my earnings for all the kids that have cancer,” he told the interviewer. “It makes me cry to see all the kids that can’t even have a life like we have.” He had quietly fulfilled his pledge for ten years, but it wasn’t until then, that even City of Hope learned where the checks were coming from. He had sent them faithfully through his bookkeeper, and his name wasn’t on them. “Sometimes, I forget to pay my bills, but I never forget about City of Hope,” he said. This year, after the Triple Crown, he donated his entire share of the winnings (about $80,000).
Hall of Fame trainer Baffert, who makes his home in La Cañada-Flintridge and bases his training operation at Santa Anita, was born in 1953 in Nogales, Arizona where his family kept cattle and enough chickens to supply eggs to the local restaurants. “There was nothing racing about us,” says Baffert.
But over the years, he found his calling, becoming a sought-after quarter horse trainer before moving into thoroughbreds. He made his way to Southern California, and made the transition to thoroughbreds, rocketing to the top and becoming the leading money-winning trainer four times.
But in 2012, while riding the crest, he was faced with an enormous challenge of a different sort. While in Dubai for the Dubai World Cup with his wife Jill and 7-year-old son Bode, it became clear that he was having a heart attack. After a call for help, an ambulance with more than a little age on it appeared, and whisked him to the hospital, where emergency procedures were quickly performed to save his life.
His doctors made it clear just how close he had come to full cardiac arrest; the heart that raced with every hoofbeat had almost stopped. Baffert has spoken often about how such an experience changes your outlook and rearranges your priorities. Grateful for every day, and embracing his family, he has now made a place for himself in history.
Like Espinoza, Bob and Jill Baffert donated their Triple Crown winnings to causes dear to their hearts. A $50,000 donation was given to the California Retire- ment Management Account (CARMA), and $50,000 to Old Friends Farm in Kentucky, two charities that provide homes for retired racehorses. And in honor of a close friend who died on Preakness day, $50,000 went to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
With the heart of a winner and a stride that looks like he’s floating, the big bay colt with the quiet and kind demeanor made all this possible, touching the heart of a nation on that June day.
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