In his words: Victor Espinoza on his injury, unknown future

In the lead up to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, Santa Anita Park and XBTV sat down with Hall of Fame rider, Victor Espinoza, to get his thoughts on not only Accelerate, favored in this year’s Classic, but on how he’s doing, almost four months after a fall that sent him into the hospital and possibly on to a new path in life. 

Contributors: Zoe CadmanAmy Zimmerman, Joe Chile and Alexis Garske
All photos by Katie Jones Photography 

When we came in today you were talking about Accelerate and how he's not an easy horse to ride. You just don't get on and ride him. Talk to me a little bit about that. 

“Accelerate is just a different kind of horse. He's one of the best right now in the country, but he's also a little funny, he’s silly. When he wants to do things, nobody can beat him. He’s like a human, in that sometimes if he doesn’t feel like doing anything, then he will not do it. He will not run. 

“For me it's fun to be around those animals because it's a game that I have to figure out. What is the best thing for them? What do they like? If they don't like one thing, why would I want to make them do it? I had to figure out what made them happy because they’re just like me. If I'm not happy, I'm not going to do it. If I'm happy then, hey, I'm happy to do it.” 

So when you're on Accelerate, when do you know if he's going to want to play or not want to play? 

“I knew when I was warming him up in the post parade. That's when I knew he was ready to do some damage or if he wasn’t ready to do anything.”

How does he tell you? How do you know that? 

“It's just body language. It's kind of hard to explain, but it's a feeling. You just know the body language because I've been around horses so long, I pay attention. I look at every single thing, what they do and for what reason, and I already know if he's not willing to do something, or the way he does want to do it.”

The neck brace Espinoza wore for just over 6 weeks is always on his kitchen counter, never too far out of reach. He says he was nervous to be without it as it had made him feel safe, and his neck protected. 

You received a call just before we started and it sounded like someone checking in on you. Was it anyone we would know? 

“It was John Sadler. He’s been there for me since the accident. He’s always checking on me and always positive, just calls to say hello and to ask how I am. 

“It’s never about if I’m coming back or if I have any updates, just about how I’m doing. It’s very kind of him.” 

Will you be watching Accelerate on Saturday?   

“It’s exciting knowing I used to ride him. I’m really rooting for him, especially his connections. The Hronis’ are so amazing for this sport and the whole industry. I’ll definitely be watching and rooting him on, but from right here. 

“Churchill asked me if I would like to attend, but I declined because I don’t like cold weather (laughs.) But really, it’s just too hard with my injury. The amount of people there, and trying to move around…It wouldn’t be a good idea. And, it is cold.”

We're going to make you relive the morning of July 22nd. Can you take me through what happened on Bobby Abu Dhabi? 

“That Sunday morning was like any other day. 

“I wasn’t even scheduled to go to Del Mar that day. It's just one of those things. They called me at the last minute to go over there and work a horse for Peter Miller, but I never knew which horse it was. I got there and saw one horse walk out and he was happy, having a good time. 

“Peter said, ‘Okay, you’ll work that horse.’ I said, ‘Oh okay. That's Bobby Abu Dhabi.’ 

“It was a different feeling that day because when I was on him, his personality changed when he started walking to the track. That wasn’t normal for him because I'd been riding him and I’ve worked him before. 

“I started working him and was so close to the wire that I looked at the wire and I was just almost about to slow him down. Then, he just suddenly disappeared. 

“Next thing I know I’m just laying, face up, not moving. Not my arms or my body. My body was just shut down. I was just moving my right arm and it was the worse feeling because my head, it was perfectly fine. 

“I feel like my head was attached to something that couldn’t move. It was like my body wasn’t there. I remember everything. I never had one scratch on me. I never even had any bruises, but I didn’t see what happened to Bobby Abu Dhabi because I was just basically paralyzed. 

“I couldn’t see what was happening on that side of me. The paramedics came quickly and when I looked at their faces, they were completely white. That scared me more. It was the worst feeling to see them like that. I wanted to say, ‘what happened? Am I really messed up?’ They took me to the hospital right away.”

What were your thoughts as you lay on the ground? You've never really had a massively bad accident. You're lying there, you can't move. What are you thinking? 

“You know that was the first time I’d been in that situation. 

“I’d fallen off many times, cracking bones or whatever, but that wasn’t scary. That was no big deal. Bones - they come back and heal and you go on in a month. 

“But just lying there, at that moment, you think ‘Wow, what happened to me?’ I started going through a lot of things in my mind. ‘Should I be able to move? I can't move anything.’ I thought I was going to be like that forever. It's just the worst feeling you can imagine. 

“I didn’t care about anything before that moment. Nothing, I just wanted to be able to move. 

“Whatever I had done before, who cares? I didn't care about anything in those moments and it seemed like it took forever. My body was completely shut down. I just wanted to move my legs and my arm. Most important were my legs. I wanted to move them.” 

Did you have visions of other people? This is a sport that we've been in for years and we've seen people paralyzed. We've seen the wheelchairs in the jocks' room. Was that going through your mind? Has this finally happened to me? 

“Oh yeah. I would hate to visualize things like that, but yeah I thought about it…Yes. It went through my mind how other jockeys come to visit the jocks’ room when they're paralyzed. In my mind I was cursing myself, thinking about how I hoped that was not happening to me. 

“In that time, so many things went through my mind. Will I be able to walk or be able to move one part of my body? Basically I was just thinking about the worst and that's just the worst feeling ever.”

Did you have any thoughts of your brother because he had to retire with a brain injury? I mean fortunately he could walk, but he had to retire. 

“Yeah, my brother…He's lucky he's still walking around, but for me, it was different. I think of the Triple Crown winner, Ron Turcotte. He's the coolest guy and I saw and met him when I went to ride in the Triple Crown. I thought of him and I was scared to maybe be worse than that.” 

How scary was that? 

“It is the scariest thing that’s ever happened in my life. I thought it was scary when I was afraid to ride those bronco horses, but this was the worst. It's scary. It's definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever thought about.” 

When did you start to get the feeling back? When you were in the hospital? 

“I started getting feeling in my legs when they were taking me into the hospital. I started moving my right leg. I had a little movement. At that point your brain really thinks so many things. I started going crazy basically because as I moved my right leg, it was like, ‘okay, now I have my right leg and my right arm. I can deal with that.’ 

“Basically you settle, you settle for that. Before, I didn't have movement, and now, my leg starts moving so maybe I can walk. Later on I started moving my left leg and by that time I was like, ‘what a relief." 

“I’m telling you, it was like my whole body felt different because I thought, ‘okay now I have my legs, so maybe I'll be able to walk, and my left arm might just be completely gone. 

“I said, ‘okay, who cares? I probably don't need that one. See, I settled for that and I was happy with that because when I was lying down on the track it was just a complete nightmare for me.
Did you, at one point think I don't care if I ever ride a horse again, just please God, let me walk? 

“Who cares about riding? I didn't even think about riding a horse. I didn't care about anything. Those types of things didn't mean anything to me at that point. I just wanted to walk and that's it. For me to continue my life I just wanted to be able to walk and that's it. Who cares about the rest of the stuff?”

Who visited you in the hospital? Did some trainers come to visit? 

“The first trainer to come visit me in the hospital was Bob Baffert and his wife, Jill. 

“They came to see me right away, and you know what, they didn't let them in. The nurse came to me to ask and I had to say, ‘let them in.’ 

“They stayed for a long time and we had fun. We laughed so much. It was the first time I really laughed with anyone besides my family. It was nice and kind of them to go over there and see me. A lot of other trainers have called me.”

When people have an accident, some will say they don't remember it or it seemed like forever. What was that like for you? 

“When I had my accident, I remembered everything because I never really hit my head, I was perfectly aware of everything. I just couldn’t move and the worst thing was that I had no pain which was stressful because nothing hurt, but nothing was moving. So that was the worst. 

“I fell off many times and I always hurt somewhere. That’s how you know the damage to your body, but when there's no feeling, that's just the worst.”

Almost four months on, how do you feel? 

“I feel thankful and just very happy that I improved this far and I went this far from what I was before. I mean I walk and I feel pretty good compared to before. I never thought I’d recover like this, to be able to walk and move my hands and just walk around. 

“I mean I feel pretty good and feel like a lucky guy being in this position, being able to move around.” 

What is your everyday life like? When you wake up in the morning, what is your day like? 

“I still have daily home care because I'm not really capable of holding things too long. So anyway, I wake up and I eat breakfast. I never used to eat breakfast before so it's hard for me, but I eat breakfast because I had to for the medicine. 

“I wake up, eat breakfast, and watch a little TV and get ready. I either I go to therapy or I go for a walk. I walk three miles around the neighborhood and then come back and I have to rest after because I get tired. I'm not like healthy like I used to be, but for some reason I have to take a nap after therapy and also after my walk. Then I take a shower, get ready, and eat again. Usually by that time the day is almost over, so that’s pretty much what I do. I just focus on myself every day."

You walk three miles a day? 

“Yes, three miles every day. I was trying to run a little bit, but my body isn’t ready for me to do that. I'm not capable to run yet. That's my goal, just to start running. Because you know I used to work out a lot and I used to run. I like to run and also I like to lift weights, but at this point I can't run and I cannot lift more than 20 pounds, not yet. 

“I was hoping the doctor give me the green light to lift more than 20 pounds but he's like, ‘No way. Not yet.’”

How hard is it for you not to run right now? 

“It’s a little bit hard because before I used to run three, four, or six miles a day and now I can't and that's hard. Sometimes I feel pretty good. I wake up and it's like, ‘Okay, I'm ready. I feel good.’ So I start walking, I warm up and then I start thinking, ‘Oh this is easy. I'm gonna start running.’ 

“I forget that I'm not 100% and then the minute I start running I feel the impact in my head and I have to stop. It's not easy. It's a little bit stressful, but after that I started walking again and know that sooner or later I'll be able to run. I walk for now and it's all good.’”

How much movement do you have? Because we've all seen this move, your American Pharoah move of looking under the shoulder and it's gonna be more like a full body turn if you ever get back to riding. 

“Yeah, I cannot look to the side with my neck yet. My neck is still really stiff. I have to move slow. I cannot move fast. If I move fast then I get a little dizzy. So that's why I have to be careful with that and also the sensation in my hands is still not that great. If you touch it right here (shows a spot on his forearm) it hurts and my hand, especially the left one, is a little slow right now." 


“You know it feels more like a shock. I can't hold things for too long because I’ll drop it. I don't even think about it so I hold it too long and the next thing I know it's dropped, without even knowing. I’ve already broken a few glasses in the house.” 


“Yeah, but I'm getting there. My goal is just to recover. Even if I can't go back to ride but hopefully I can recover 80% to where I was I'm happy to live my life like that."

Will we see you opening day? Will you show up? Will you make the drive? We'll come and pick you up. 

“Opening day San Anita, hopefully that I can, who knows? I might come back to ride at that time. I don't even know. I just go day by day and just do my walking and try not to be fat because not doing anything I can feel it. I never see my belly this thick in my entire life basically.”

What's the prognosis for you now? We're four months since the accident. You were hoping to be back riding at the beginning of the year. What are your thoughts on that now? 

“They’ve changed. First, I was focused, and now I know it's really trying hard. I worked myself for the Breeder's Cup, but it was getting closer and closer and I was not recovering as quickly as I thought I would. 

“I have not been in this situation before so I was basically naïve. ‘Okay I'm just trying to get to Breeder's Cup,’ but in reality there's just so much you don't think about, but in a way it's good to help me, to motivate me, to do the right thing. 

“I work hard in therapy. At this point I am just going day by day and to come back to ride…I really don't know. Not even the doctors know. I was just with my doctor. I have three. 

“They look after me right now and all three are pretty much the same in that. So, I went to see one of them, Dr. Moon, and he said, ‘Victor I have all of your results and everything,’ 

I was really happy that day. 

“He said, ‘Do you know you're one of the luckiest guys ever?" I said ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because of what happened to you, the extent of your injuries and the way you're recovering right now. You're doing pretty good.' 

“I said, ‘Well, you ruined my day. I had already forgot about all of that.' 

He said, ‘Okay, come see me next month.’ I said, ‘Good.’ 

“I don't really don't know what the outcome is for my future.”

Espinoza sits in a hard-backed dining chair most days. He's unable to join guests on the couch as the deep cushions are still both unsafe and uncomfortable for his neck. 


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