Victor Espinoza's second chance

"They didn't think about the future," he says. "I [grew] up thinking about my future. I wanted to know what can I do with my life, and they only worried about playing and watching a movie.

"I was really curious to see what life's [about]. And older guys who live longer than me, I want to know what they do in life, what I can learn."

An older man once asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Espinoza was 8, maybe 10, at the time. He said he didn't know, but whatever he did, he wanted to be the best. And ever since he was a kid, he's wanted to be healthy.

He was afraid to even get near horses as a child. He respected their size and power, and how far a little boy could fall. But the more he was around horses, the more it became automatic. His older brother Jose left home as a teenager, and a few years later, he asked for Victor's help when he got a job as a trainer. Victor, 15 at the time, joined him and learned about a horse's body and mind. The brothers eventually became jockeys. Last summer, Jose fell off a horse and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He most likely will never ride again.

Before or after each race, Victor prays that he and all of the other jockeys will be safe. He did this the day of Jose's accident. He'll no doubt do it again Saturday.

* * *

The faces in horse racing don't change much; they just get older. It can be a cutthroat business, especially in Southern California, where the jockeys can't hop from track to track, like on the East Coast, so they run into mostly the same people, people they're competing against multiple times a day.

"We're kind of like high-paid circus people," says longtime Southern California trainer Gary Stute, a friend of Espinoza's. "You work seven days a week, and, like carny people, this is our whole life."

But not all days are the same. Not all races blur into one another.

In the spring of 2002, Espinoza's life was on the verge of change. Three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Prince Ahmed bin Salman bought 90 percent interest in War Emblem, a talented and temperamental horse who had just won the Illinois Derby.

Espinoza, a lifer and a relative unknown on the big stage, was about to have the wildest ride of his career.

* * *

He didn't even see War Emblem until the morning of the Kentucky Derby.

Baffert, War Emblem's trainer, showed Espinoza video of the horse winning a race in Illinois, then gave the jockey instructions on how he thought the Derby should unfold. He told him that he was riding a really good horse, and joked that Espinoza shouldn't jump up and down if he's heading for home with a big lead.

War Emblem led for much of the race, found another gear down the stretch and blew past the competition.

"I had seven seconds of knowing I was going to win the Kentucky Derby," Baffert says. "It's a different kind of feeling. It's like if somebody played the lottery and hit it for millions, and the first time you read the numbers and you actually thought, 'Geez, those are the numbers?' It's just like that. You don't know what it's going to feel like until it happens.

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