Hall of Fame jockeys 'glorified camping' out at Santa Anita

Hall of Fame jockeys 'glorified camping' out at Santa Anita
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

With mounts that have exceeded a combined $500 million in earnings during their Hall of Fame careers, it’s safe to assume jockeys Mike Smith and Victor Espinoza never envisioned their weekend digs would consist of a trailer stationed in an oversized parking lot.

It’s taken a global pandemic, but that’s exactly where Smith and Espinoza along with the rest of the Santa Anita Park jockey colony find themselves each weekend as part of the Southern California track’s COVID-19 protection protocols.

A “restricted zone” in the Santa Anita parking lot has been developed to house 24 jockeys, valets and other essential personnel. Each Wednesday, all personnel set to live in the restricted zone are tested for the coronavirus. A negative test result provides entry into the restricted zone, where plush trailers await for the entirety of the race week.

Smith, who resides in upscale Sierra Madre near Santa Anita with his wife of 16 months, has been gung-ho about living at the track. He likened it to “glorified camping” while praising Santa Anita for the more than acceptable living quarters, which are called Starr Wagons.

“These are like the trailers movie stars stay in — man, they are really nice,” said Smith, who reached a career pinnacle in 2018 when piloting Justify to the Triple Crown, on Sunday. “That part is great. Santa Anita has done a tremendous job.”

Espinoza, Santa Anita’s other Triple Crown-winning jockey, added the track’s new protocols have taken adjusting. However, in a sentiment widely experienced during this time of pandemic-imposed quarantine, he noted things have gone well through two weeks -- but it’s still early.

“Everything is different, but it’s only a couple of nights so it’s not that bad,” Espinoza said. “As of right now, yeah, things are good. But it’s still early. Maybe a couple more weeks it might get old. But as for now, it’s so far so good.”

Each of the Starr Wagons are shared by two jockeys, who have their own entrance with living quarters divided by a wall. Each living space is outfitted with a flat-screen TV, kitchenette, full bathroom and microwave among other amenities.

Smith said Santa Anita also provides the jockeys with dinner each night and that the track’s 100-1 Club, located on the third floor of the grandstand, serves as an entertainment hub in the evenings. He added the communal living experience has provided a significant boost in the camaraderie of the Santa Anita jockeys.

“We have dinner at night and get to hang out with all the guys,” Smith said. “We watch movies or play poker, then we go home to a luxury trailer.”

As the deans of the Santa Anita jockey colony, 54-year-old Smith and Espinoza, 48, have spent much of their time telling stories and offering advice to their younger colleagues, both said. Espinoza noted he was 'shocked" by the interest of the younger jockeys, but then remembered what he was like as an up-and-coming rider.

“We are all in the [jockey’s] room together, but we don’t really talk about our careers or what’s going on with our life. So this has been different” Espinoza said. “Now, especially with the young guys, we spend more time together. They come up and start asking questions about a race I’ve rode before and won. They are like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember when you won this race. I was so excited.’ I was like, what? I was so shocked. 

‘When I start talking to them about it, all these memories start coming back,” Espinoza continued. “Then I remember, I used to be just like them. They want to do it like me, or better than me.

"All I tell them never give up. Just keep going forward no matter what. As a jockey, one day you can be on top and then the next day you're all the way at the bottom. You have to be able to handle that.”

Smith also pointed to how a unique experience has been availed in these most unusual of times.

"It’s been really cool because first off, we hadn’t seen each other in a while because of the shut down. And while you know people, you don’t go home with them every night,” Smith said. “So it’s been fun. We talk about life, individual situations — families, kids. It’s just been really, really good stuff.”

As longtime stalwarts in southern California racing, Smith and Espinoza were quick to acknowledge the past 18 months have been a trying time for the circuit. First, Santa Anita was stung by a rash of equine fatalities last winter that raised the ire of the general public and forced the temporary suspension of racing; and this year came coronavirus, leading to another temporary halt to racing.

Smith and Espinoza both pointed out changes made in the management team at Santa Anita — most notably, the addition of Aidan Butler as executive director of California racing for The Stronach Group — has yielded significant improvements in both morale and racing operations. Butler, who has proven to be as hands-on a racetrack manager as you’ll find, also spends the race week living in the “restricted zone” with the jockeys.

Smith and Espinoza said their decision to ride under these circumstances was in large part due to their commitment to getting California racing back on track. Espinoza was just returning from a serious injury last winter when Santa Anita's trouble began.

“I didn’t really know what was going on, except for what I had seen on the news,” Espinoza said. “I still have no idea what the deal was. But what I can tell you is everything has gotten better. The new management team has really helped the place and turned things around. Hopefully it continues this way for many, many years.”

Smith said while in the twilight of his career, helping lift California racing to its previous heights is among his priorities.

“I’m seeing us come out of the smoke,” he said. “There’s a good feeling around here again like there used to be. You know, I have a few good years left in me and I’m not going anywhere. I really want to try and leave the game, and California racing specifically, as good as it can possibly be.”

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