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Victor Espinoza

Victor Espinoza
Induction Year: 
May 23, 1972, Tulancingo, Mexico
Career Years: 
Number of Mounts: 
Number of Winners: 
Winning Percentage: 

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Victor Espinoza’s journey to becoming one of the most accomplished and popular jockeys in thoroughbred racing, winning the Triple Crown and being elected to the Hall of Fame has been a surreal experience the 45-year-old native of Tulancingo, Mexico never imagined.


With 3,320 wins through May of 2017 — including seven Triple Crown events and more than $193 million in purse earnings — Espinoza’s achievements, although perhaps dreamlike to him, compare favorably with the greatest jockeys in American racing history. He is one of only six jockeys to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes three or more times each, joining Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Gary Stevens and Kent Desormeaux.


Born on a dairy farm on May 23, 1972, Espinoza was the 11th of 12 children in his family. He worked long hours planting crops and milking cows for little money, but there were horses on the farm and Espinoza learned to ride and began dreaming of a career as a jockey. As a teenager, he took a job as a bus driver in Mexico City to help pay for jockey school. Driving a bus, Espinoza said, was much more difficult than piloting high-strung racehorses.


“It was crazy every day. You don’t know what pressure is until you try driving in Mexico City,” Espinoza said. “It can be life or death at every turn. You can’t relate unless you’ve done it … and I’m glad those days are long gone.”


Some statistics and descriptions validate Espinoza’s take. The World Health Organization says traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in Mexico and a motorist is killed or injured in Mexico City at a rate of one per hour. A Los Angeles Times reporter once described Mexico City traffic as “a seemingly infinite maze of daredevils and incompetents, of axle-bending potholes and curb-hugging taco stands, of signless seven-way intersections and baffling multidirectional traffic circles, of tamale vendors on tricycles and cops hungry for bribe money.”


Riding American Pharoah with the pressure of a 37-year Triple Crown drought on his shoulders seemed like a walk in the park in comparison.


“I’ve been through some tough times, but I am blessed,” Espinoza said. “I’ve worked hard and been lucky to ride some amazing horses. I always say I’m the luckiest Mexican in the whole world.”


There certainly has been considerable hard work and skill to go along with any luck. After beginning his career at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City — where he earned his first win on June 14, 1992 — Espinoza moved his tack to Northern California and became the leading apprentice rider at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.


Espinoza’s breakthrough on the national scene took place in 2000. He won riding titles that year at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, earned his first Grade 1 win aboard Early Pioneer in the Hollywood Gold Cup and piloted Spain to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at odds of 55 to 1. He earned $13.2 million in purses that year, more than four times his previous career best.


Two years later, Espinoza secured the mount on War Emblem and won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 20 to 1. Espinoza and War Emblem proceeded to win the Preakness before having their Triple Crown hopes dashed in the Belmont when the horse stumbled badly at the break and finished eighth. They rebounded to win the Haskell Invitational and War Emblem went on to win the Eclipse Award for Champion 3-Year-Old Male.


Espinoza’s best year from a statistical standpoint was 2006 when he set personal records with 259 wins and purse earnings of $16.1 million. He won four graded stakes with The Tin Man that year, including Grade 1s in the Arlington Million and Clement L. Hirsch. Espinoza also won a record seven races on a single card at Del Mar that year. Since 2000, Espinoza has ranked among the top 10 riders in earnings seven times and has won 10 individual meet riding titles between Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.


Espinoza began a career peak in 2014 when he won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with California Chrome, the Eclipse Award winner for Horse of the Year in 2014 and 2016. With California Chrome, Espinoza also won the Santa Anita Derby, Hollywood Derby, Dubai World Cup and Pacific Classic, among others.


In 2015, Espinoza and American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought and added victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Haskell and Arkansas Derby. American Pharoah was the unanimous choice for Horse of the Year and Espinoza was named an Eclipse Award finalist.


“The past few years have been beyond anything I could have ever imagined. To be able to ride horses like Pharoah and Chrome is a true gift and they mean everything,” said Espinoza, who is one of only 10 jockeys with three or more Kentucky Derby victories and one of eight to win the Preakness at least three times. “You’re fortunate if you get one horse like that in your entire career. I’m very thankful the owners and trainers have shown that type of confidence in me with horses of that caliber.”


Espinoza continues to be at the top of his game in 2017. Early in the year, he won the Apple Blossom Handicap with champion Stellar Wind and his third Santa Anita Derby with Gormley.


“It’s been quite a ride so far,” Espinoza said. “You always hope you can find that next big horse and I’m excited to see what else I can do. Racing has given me everything and I’ve always just tried to be appreciative and make the most of the opportunities I have been given.”