The winning jockey in the 2016 Dubai World Cup was Victor Espinoza. A 44-year-old rider recognized as one of the world’s best. “Why do you guys want to do this?” Victor asked us when we introduced our idea of following him over the 72 hours prior to the richest race in the world. “Because we think your story is like a movie,”we answered. “And because we think it’s time people understood who you are.”
“Look into the camera and smile,” I shout.
It’s now two hours and forty-five minutes before post time for the Dubai World Cup and we’ve taken Espinoza to a dead-end road a few streets away from the Meydan Hotel, where the skyline appears like a passage to eternity.
Victor Espinoza’s dark eyes peacefully look back at us, his face truly glows, and he looks like a movie star. And just as the spotlights from Meydan racecourse are turned on, as the vibration from the eighty thousand people who have come to see him ride California Chrome in the world’s richest race intensifies, as the expectations, the pressure, and the smell of the six million dollars to be won fill the atmos-phere, it’s in that moment that Victor Espinoza says, “How can I not smile?” and shows us his pearly whites.
“Espinoza brought toys, books, and several American Pharoah hats to the young patients. He exchanged numbers with the kids and their parents and invited them to come visit him at the racetrack, before moving along to individual patient rooms to visit children aged 4 to 11, each fighting a different variation of the deadly disease.Victor’s support and generosity have been a tremendous gift to City of Hope.More importantly, his personal commitment and involvement have made a real difference in the lives of our patients, particularly our pediatric patients.”
Robert W. Stone, President and CEO of cancer research organization City of Hope.
“I was one of 11 brothers and sisters,” Victor says. We lived at a dairy farm and my mother used to cook us fish and vegetables and other Mexican food for dinner. Us kids played outdoors and got dirty during the day. Sometimes we wouldn’t even wash our hands before dinner, but we never got sick. First time I saw a doctor was when I turned 16 years old. Life was effortless. I was happy.”
An effortless life. It’s time for us to update the definition of what that is. Because an effortless life does not mean a life steeped in privilege, but the ability to choose what the privileges are and how to relate to them as a human. Growing up as a little boy in Mexico, Victor Espinoza’s privilege was the authenticity of his life. It was the nature and the soundscapes and the sky and the mountains. It was the feeling of getting his hands dirty from the mud and the fields and the puddles of water when it rained, and it was the view from riding racehorses with his brothers and sisters until the sun over Hidalgo showed the golden hues of dawn.
“The first time I sat on a horse I never thought to myself that I was a good rider,” Victor says. “To me, riding was about joy. I loved horses and I still do, I think they are the most amazing and intelligent animals on earth.”
However, believing that he was good was unthinkable. He has always thought that would only prevent him from working harder.
“I still don’t tell myself that I’m good. I keep on encouraging myself to always become better,” he says.
A lot of people define themselves by their mistakes, but it is evident that Victor Espinoza is not one of them. He defines himself by his choices and takes full responsibility for every action in his life.
“I probably miss a lot of things that other people have,” he says.
“Happiness and health are the two things I pray for, “ Victor says. “I pray three or four times per day, wherever I am, no matter what.”
“Things like friends, relationships, family, and that kind of stuff. But I know that I would never have been where I am today if I had chosen that type of life. I haven’t prioritized it. I’ve prioritized my career.”
In his current successful situation, it’s easy to look back at his life and see his choices as quite lucrative ones, but what’s fascinating is that despite setting new records as a jockey, re-writing racing history, winning legendary titles as a sportsman, and even pushing the boundaries of what a man in his forties can do, the goal has never been to hustle for fame. It has been to survive. And during the early years of his career this was just a step-by-step method, where winning one—only one!—race would be enough.
“My dad died when I was 13-years old, “ Victor says. “I needed to make money and I didn’t understand why I should go to school. Why would I not make money before I was too old to enjoy it? ‘I need money now’ I thought to myself. So I quit school and started working at a farm.”
Victor had to grow up fast.Responsibilities quickly arose and took away the innocence of his childhood. At only thirteen, Victor was already supporting himself and his ambitions on his own, knowing that he couldn’t trust anyone but himself to achieve them.
“It was a difficult time, but I learned how to move on from it.”
Today, thirty years later, the poorly paid farmer’s life is but a memory to look back on.
The jockey now owns properties in Los Angeles, does his seasonal shopping at Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and drives a Porsche 911 Twin Turbo that accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h in 3.0 seconds.
Despite the upgrades in his life, the two things that really matter to him today are the same as they were when he was a little boy in Mexico.
“Happiness and health are the two things I pray for, “ Victor says. “I pray three or four times per day, wherever I am, no matter what.”
As a kid, his mother Gloria took him and all his ten siblings to church during weekdays.
“Praying has never been about wishing for my dreams to come true,” Victor explains. “It’s about practicing gratitude. It’s about appreciating what you already have.”
Life is too short, he says, and you can’t take anything for granted. His humbleness towards life comes from the experience of fighting for it.
“Today I wake up and I truly appreciate life more than anything else,” says Victor who is a Buddhist. “Twenty years ago there was just stuff going on that forced me to reflect on who I am,” he says. Buddhism was right for me, but I really encourage everybody’s free will to choose what’s right for them.”
Buddhism has also brought Espinoza the daily routine of practicing mindful meditation. Meditation is an effort to access the gap between your brain and thought, when your body is awake but your mind remains quiet. You focus on your breathing, while the buzz of thoughts in your head disappears, and in this way your brain recovers in a deeply strengthening neurobiological manner.
“I meditate wherever I am,” Victor explains. “Before a race, on a trip, in a hotel room or in a car.” A recent study on the mind-mastery of meditating monks showed that after many years of practicing meditation, the monk’s emotional control was so powerful that not even a gunshot increased their heart rate.
What is he seeking in meditation that he can’t get in his ‘real life’, I ask.
A giant white limousine with black windows passes by as he looks out onto the landscape of unlimited possibilities and calmly replies, “the silence!”
“Though he has had a huge amount of success lately, it really hasn’t changed him. In the jockeys’ room, he is still called ‘Chapo’ (meaning ‘shorty’, or ‘little one’) and he seems to always take in the bigger picture. Where even the most successful of riders normally fails to win four out of every five races they ride, his steady nature is a blessing that lets him succeed much more. I’ve not seen him get down on things or himself when things go badly. He certainly has enjoyed his success, but he doesn’t go over the moon with it”
Mac McBride, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Victor may have spent the past several years making headlines, but those around him still see the same man they knew before California Chrome and American Pharoah came into his life.
Victor’s path to success is not a common one. He drove buses in Mexico to pay to attend jockey school before moving to the United States in 1990, and a decade later he would win of the biggest races in the world. It was the first of many top level successes.
“When I was 14 I started working as a bus driver in Mexico City. It was fun, I liked it, I learned about cars and engines and I learned how to take the pieces out and then put them back together again. But I was not paid enough and I couldn’t afford a place to live so I stayed in my sister’s apartment in central Mexico City and I only slept 3-4 hours per night and often on the road. Then I decided to take another job, but, since I had no money, I couldn’t stop driving until the same day I got myself a new job. And yes, that’s the way it’s been going since then. I still haven’t had a vacation.”
When Victor was sixteen years old he moved from the rougher streets of Mexico City to the palm-lined boulevards of sunny California.
His older brother worked as a jockey at Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco and Victor came to assist him, living on the little money that he had earned as a bus driver.
There was one problem though; Victor didn’t know a single word of English.
“He would look at me and nod, and I would walk away wondering if he understood anything I had just said,” Steve Specht, one of the trainers that worked with Espinoza during his early days at Golden Gate Fields, told The Pasadena Star-News. “Victor was living in the tack room here at the track, but he kept getting better and better, and soon people started seeing the talent he had.”
Victor continued riding, but he had to learn English too, he thought.
So he signed up for a six-month course at a school in San Francisco, but none of the other students seemed to share the same type of inspiration or life experience that Victor had, so he would go to his lessons but he never really made any friends.
“I thought the guys were boring—they didn’t have any dreams,” he says.” I liked the girls better. It was because of the girls that I went to classes and it was because of the girls that I wanted to become a better student.”
Growing up close to his mother and his sisters, women have always been enlightening contributors in Victor Espinoza’s life.
“I’m crazy about women. I always have been,” he says. “I think being in love is one of the most amazing feelings a human can ever have and I think everyone should be more in love in their life because when you are, everything gets more fun. You get happier. Even when you go to work you will do your job much better.”
Are you in love right now?
“Me? Oh my god,” he says. “I’m a little bit in love every day!”
The media’s image of Victor Espinoza is no less loved up. He is charming, friendly, funny, and constantly surrounded by fans and people who think they know him.
Yet Victor himself says that he doesn’t have any real friends.
“I do hang out with people sometimes, but I don’t have any best friends,” he says.
“It’s hard to make things work with a girlfriend because I’m very focused on my career right now.”
Can it be that you feel lonely being surrounded by all these people who often come from much wealthier backgrounds than you? Do you ever feel like you don’t belong?
“It’s ok.” Victor Espinoza says.
Because that’s what it is; ok.
In 2000, the Espinoza revolution began. The first Breeder’s Cup race he won, which came aboard Spain in the Distaff at odds of 50-1, triggered an unbelievable upward trend. In 2002, he would win his first Kentucky Derby aboard the enigmatic War Emblem, who would also carry him to victory in the Preakness Stakes. The duo lost all chance at winning the Triple Crown when War Emblem, a confirmed front runner, stumbled badly coming out of the starting gate of the Belmont Stakes.
Today, his success seems to be reaching its climax and Victor, who is now 44, has won over 3,200 races all over the world. He came agonizingly close to winning the Triple Crown in 2014 with California Chrome, but then, last year, he made history aboard American Pharoah, who became the horse in 37 years to win the Holy Grail of American racing. In doing so, Victor also became the oldest rider and first Latino jockey to win the coveted race series.
His journey has taken him from a dairy farm in Mexico to the luxurious surroundings of Dubai.
And all this with a mind not founded on scholarships or family wealth, but a step-by-step method, in which development and gratitude rather than greediness and perfection have been key, with none of today’s smash-and-grab athletic heroism.
It’s liberating, isn’t it? There is hope for the power of hope.
“It’s because of my own pressure,” Victor says.
Victor is where he is today as a result of never choosing to settle down.
“I always put myself in hard situations,” Victor says. ”I need challenges and I need resistance. When I was young I knew that I wanted to have power and become a leader, but I needed experience, I thought, because without challenges and experience, I wouldn’t become a good leader.”
An active social media user, Victor has over 36,000 followers on Instagram and close to 200,000 on Facebook. This large following makes him a leader of sorts, but unlike many other sportsmen, he does not seem to be interested in using it for self-promotion, but rather for showing his thoughts on what matters in the world. For example, although he has donated money to City of Hope since 2001, it is something he does for himself.
“ Yes, but you know what,” Victor says, and now there’s actually something heartbreakingly serious in his voice.
“I don’t ask people to do the same. This is something I do from my heart. Because when I go to the hospital and see the kids, it’s painful. I remember myself when I was a kid and how I always wanted to get out and get dirty and run around outside all day. These kids just can’t, they don’t even know how long they will live and it’s… painful. If I have the possibility to help them I will.”
Only two hours to post time for the Dubai World Cup.
Meydan is lit up like a shining temple. Horse-loving pilgrims from all over the world have come to watch Espinoza ride.
“I have to go,” Victor says. “I’m meeting the team and then I’ll get down to the jockeys’ room to get dressed.”
The air outside is warm and perfumed, a cocoon of luxury, with fragrances of patchouli, tobacco, saffron, and black plums. Meydan is lit up like a shining temple. Horse-loving pilgrims from all over the world have come to watch Espinoza ride.
Are you nervous?
Are you looking forward to it?
And just before one of the world’s best jockeys turns towards the threshold of eternity, I say:
“ One more thing. If you win tonight, could we get some more images of you when you’ve won? We want something special that nobody else has. You know we’re not like two regular photo-journalists. We’re like you; we want to become the best. And it’s…
Victor Espinoza throws a glance at the silver Longines watch around his sun-tanned wrist.
“Call me later,” he says. And then he just leaves.
We don’t even get to say good luck; we just stand there and stare at the back of a movie star.
Race night. Dubai World Cup. In five unforgettable seconds, we realize this is a now or never moment and we rush into the parade ring, push ourselves through a crowd of four hundred photographers and run towards the track, like two Swedish oracles ready to get the best shots.
Victor Espinoza and California Chrome wins the Dubai World Cup. The saddle having slipped so badly that Victor had to use all his skill just to stay aboard. A symphony is playing. The audience sings his name and a euphoric moment of sweat, smoke, tears, and ten million dollars pervades the atmosphere.
Espinoza comes riding with his arms triumphantly raised to the sky like a hero.
The fans of Team California Chrome cry in happiness. Victor pauses and the cinema-like spotlights shimmer over his body. But then something strange happens. In a split second that we’ll never forget, the winner of the 2016 Dubai World Cup turns his head right toward our camera, commanding California Chrome to start walking toward us, and doesn’t tell the world’s best horse to stop doing so until they are right in front of us.
And with the eyes of a millionaire winner, yet with the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy from Mexico, Victor Espinoza dips down his ten-million dollar winning whip right into the frame of our best ever picture, to the sound of the eighty thousand people screaming his name, and the tones of despair from those four hundred other photographers whose facial expressions suggest they might be ready to change jobs.
Victor Espinoza himself remains silent. Just the way he likes.