03/11/2016 3:26PM

Hovdey: Woolf Award icing on Espinoza's cake


Apparently, it is still good to be Victor Espinoza.

In two weeks, Espinoza will be in Dubai to ride California Chrome in the $10 million World Cup – a bigger, stronger, and possibly faster version of the California Chrome who finished second in the race last year.

Last Wednesday, it was announced that the jockey made the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame ballot for the second straight year. It’s a quality ballot, to be sure, topped by Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. But in the 12 months since he first appeared on the ballot, Espinoza has been on “Dancing With the Stars,” goofed off with Jimmy Fallon, and won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah. Which achievement carries more weight with the voters remains to be seen.

And on Sunday at Santa Anita Park, Espinoza will receive the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award as the 2016 choice of his fellow riders across North America from a ballot that included Javier Castellano, Joe Bravo, Gerard Melancon, and Joe Steiner.

By now, every little schoolchild knows that George “The Iceman” Woolf was a prodigiously talented jockey who was famous in real life for riding horses like Whirlaway, Kayak II, Challedon, Bold Venture, Devil Diver, and Alsab. A cinematic version of Woolf was embodied by Gary Stevens in “Seabiscuit” as Seabiscuit’s jockey in the historic match race with War Admiral.

Woolf, a diabetic, was killed at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, 1946, when he fell off Please Me on the clubhouse turn. Four years later, the track initiated the George Woolf Award in his memory.

“I walked by that statue every day going to work and didn’t really know who it was,” Espinoza said, referring to the life-sized bronze of Woolf located just inside Santa Anita’s grandstand gates. “I know a lot more about him now.”

Espinoza will be at the center of a ceremony that has supplied some memorable moments through the years.

There was not a dry eye in the house when Don MacBeth made it to Santa Anita to receive the Woolf Award in 1987, just eight days before his death from cancer at age 37. Often, the award will stand as a valedictory moment capping a long and fruitful career, as it did with Don Brumfield (1988), Eddie Maple (1995), Mark Guidry (2006), Richard Migliore (2008), and last year with Mike Luzzi, who was recovering from a serious injury at the time.

Sometimes it helps to have won the Kentucky Derby twice in the last three years, as happened with Woolf Award winner Calvin Borel in 2010. To celebrate, he won another Derby that spring.

Espinoza is on a similar roll, with American Pharoah coming hard on the heels of California Chrome’s 2014 Horse of the Year campaign. At 43, he is energized by the idea of becoming the first jockey to ride three straight Kentucky Derby winners in a history dating to 1875, and only the fourth to win four or more. Don’t tell him it can’t be done.

“Of course it can,” Espinoza said with a laugh. “Every year is different. We all start out with the same chance. I always dreamed I would win the Derby once. Now I’m kind of getting used to it.”

The Woolf Award began life voted on by the Southern California media and had the feel of a local version of a horse-racing Heisman Trophy. The first winner was Gordon Glisson, just 20, on the heels of his national title in 1949, followed by Bill Shoemaker, who was 19. Veterans John Longden, Eddie Arcaro, and Ralph Neves followed.

Santa Anita management turned the voting over to the fans in the mid-1970s, and then in the 1980s, the track went into partnership with the Jockeys’ Guild on the voting and presentation of the Woolf Award. By then, at least in spirit, the award had become an honor bestowed upon a rider whose record and character reflected well upon the sport. The independent-minded Espinoza is a rare non-Guild member to have been honored, which could have been a sticking point with fellow riders but thankfully was not.

“I am all for the health of jockeys and for the benefits and the future of the young guys who are coming along,” Espinoza said. “For that reason, I would probably be obsessed and try to fix all the problems and probably lose focus on my work, when my job is to ride these horses to my best ability. Later on, there is always the possibility I could join. I never say never.”

Espinoza and his agent, Brian Beach, are determined to recover from the distractions and demands of the rider’s American Pharoah celebrity that ate into his overall business over the past year. Through Thursday, Espinoza had ridden only 60 races in 2016, a far cry from his peak years, when he was one of Southern California’s busiest riders. On Sunday, Espinoza has only one mount, a claimer for California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman.

But that won’t matter. Sunday will be Espinoza’s day to join a roster of past Woolf Award winners that includes several who will be standing right there beside him, among them Laffit Pincay, Mike Smith, Alex Solis, Kent Desormeaux, and Gary Stevens.

“To receive this award is an honor, a real honor,” Espinoza said. “Just to be on that list of names is something special.”