ENCINITAS — Triple-Crown winning jockey Victor Espinoza has had a career that has some exhilarating highs — riding American Pharaoh to the first Triple Crown since 1978 in 2015 — to some painful lows — a riding slump in the mid 2000s that made him re-evaluate his career.
Nothing, however, was worse than opening his eyes after falling from a horse July 23 at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and not being able to move his arms and legs.
“It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” said Espinoza on Aug 22, nearly a month after the tragic training incident in which the horse he was riding, Bobby Abu Dhabi, went into cardiac arrest, fell and died with Espinoza on top. “When you die, you don’t feel anything. When I woke up and couldn’t feel my arms and my legs, it scared me.”
Espinoza suffered a spinal fracture of the C3 vertebra near the neck and a stinger to the left shoulder and arm, causing shoulder pain and numbness.
Over the first few weeks, Espinoza said he fought through bouts of numbness and searing pain in his shoulder and hand as his body negotiated the trauma.
Flash forward to Wednesday morning, and Espinoza is carrying a few extra pounds and facial hair sprouting from his usually clean-shaven countenance. He leaned against a wall bending one leg and staring at Christina Dinh, a physical therapist at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, as she talked him through a series of exercises.
Three mornings a week, Dinh helps Espinoza’s body and nerves relearn the connections that the brief paralysis and trauma have taken from him. In one exercise, she has Espinoza kick a rubber ball while naming a fruit that starts with a different letter of the alphabet from A to F.
“Why you gotta use ‘avocado’ to start?” Espinoza says with a mischievous grin.
“Because we are in California,” Dinh responds.
“I thought it was because I’m Mexican,” Espinoza said, and everyone in the room erupts in laughter.
Beyond the laughter, the progress Espinoza has made is profound, Dinh and his caregiver, Rosa Aponte said.
“Every day we go for a walk, and at first, he was really slow, and we couldn’t walk far,” said Aponte, who stays with Espinoza at his Del Mar home where he lives during the racing season. “Yesterday, we walked downhill and uphill, and he got me tired.
“I am very surprised he’s doing things so quickly,” Aponte added. “He can dress himself, he’s walking around.”
When asked if this was the fastest recovery she had seen in her career as a caregiver, Aponte nodded vigorously.
“Definitely,” she said. “It’s because of his spirit. He’s so positive. And he’s so determined.”
Espinoza, who describes himself as a devoutly spiritual man, said that he feels God has played a big role in his recovery.
“God’s watching me,” he said. “From the minute I get out of bed, I concentrate, I am focused, and I take it one step at a time.
“Every day I wake up I feel that I’ve improved a little bit, and in no time I will be 100 percent,” he said.
As he recovers, however, Espinoza said he doesn’t even think about his job. This time, he said, is about the recovery.
“Right now, I don’t even think about (riding),” he said. “I focus on myself. I’ve dedicated 20 to 25 yeas to my career, and I have done everything, but when something like this happens, it is just time to myself, and now is that time.”
One thing he’s enjoying during his recovery? Eating three times a day, he said.
“I never do that, I only eat once a day,” he said. “I’m eating three meals a day, it’s very different. But when I come back to race, I know what I have to do to get back in shape.”
Espinoza thanked the doctors, nurses and therapists who have been helping him on the road to recovery.
“I have the best doctors on the planet, without them, I wouldn’t be talking to you,” Espinoza said. “And now, the therapists, they have taken their time with me because they know what I need to come back and what connections I need to be able to come back and be as good as I was before.”
Espinoza also said he received inspiration from a surprise visit from world-renowned fellow jockey Gary Stevens, whose career was temporarily derailed by serious injuries, only to have strong comebacks.
“He had some many injuries, broken collarbones, knees, and he would come back and start riding again and win another race and then he was a champion again,” Espinoza said. “He’s the only one I’ve looked at (for inspiration), and I look at him and say, ‘This guy is unbelievable.’