04/24/2014 5:27PM

The other brother watches: Jose Espinoza deals with career-ending injury

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Michael Amoruso
Jose Espinoza has 856 career wins.

ELMONT, N.Y. – It has been eight months since Jose Espinoza was thrown from his mount, Heading to Toga, a few yards past the finish line on Alabama Day at Saratoga.

What first was reported to be a broken nose turned out to be worse. Much worse. After eight months and examinations from several doctors, Espinoza is just now starting to accept the fact that, barring a miracle, he will never ride competitively again. Brain trauma and the fear of what could happen should he fall again have prompted doctors to advise Espinoza to retire at the age of 44, after a career in which he rode 856 winners.

“I’m close to accepting it,” Espinoza said Wednesday in an interview at Belmont Park. “It’s very dangerous if I come back. I had a meeting a couple of times with doctors and they showed me videos. It can be a disaster for me.”

Fifty-one weeks ago, Espinoza rode in his first Kentucky Derby, splitting the field in 10th aboard the New York-bred Giant Finish, who entered the Derby picture five days from the race.

“I was so excited. That’s always been my dream,” Espinoza said.

This year, Espinoza will get to live the Derby dream through his younger brother Victor, who will ride the likely favorite, California Chrome, in next Saturday’s 140th Kentucky Derby. Victor Espinoza already has a Derby win to his credit, having guided War Emblem to a 20-1 upset in 2002.

It has only been in the last month – since the Santa Anita Derby – that Jose Espinoza knew his brother was on such a talented horse as California Chrome. Espinoza, who said he doesn’t watch racing much, stumbled upon the Santa Anita Derby telecast while channel-surfing. It has lifted his spirits during a depressing time.

“When I knew it was Victor riding that horse I was so excited,” Jose said. “Me and him talk a lot, but we never talk too much about horses.”

Prior to the last summer’s spill, Jose Espinoza was enjoying a solid year. His 41 winners through Aug. 17 were nine more than he totaled the previous year. Last winter, Espinoza won the Grade 3 Sam Davis on Falling Sky, finished second in the Grade 3 Gotham on West Hills Giant, and was third in the Grade 3 Spiral on Giant Finish, with two of those horses ending up in the Kentucky Derby. He also won a couple of graded stakes on the turf aboard Swift Warrior.

[From donkeys to the Derby: Espinoza wears reminder of his humble start]

At last summer’s Saratoga meet, Espinoza had won six races, the most he had won there in 13 years.

In the first race on Aug. 17, Espinoza rode Heading to Toga in a turf sprint. Galloping out after finishing fifth, Heading to Toga broke down, fatally fracturing her right foreleg and hurling Espinoza to the ground. In addition to the head trauma, Espinoza suffered a broken nose, broken shoulder, and facial injuries.

Espinoza spent six days in an Albany hospital. Neurologists were noncommittal on his diagnosis.  As more time passed, doctors informed Espinoza that he shouldn’t ride for fear of paralysis – or worse – from another fall.

Espinoza pleaded with doctors for more time and perhaps different treatment. But there were instances late last year that illustrated the neurological problems that could impact Espinoza.

The first happened in November when Espinoza flew home to Mexico to visit his mother. Though cleared to fly by doctors, Espinoza said he felt so much pressure in his head that he spent four days in bed. Doctors gave Espinoza medication that enabled him to fly back to New York.

A few weeks later, Espinoza wanted to drive to Saratoga by himself. Shortly after he got behind the wheel of his car, things got blurry. Espinoza, who lives on Long Island with his wife, Rufina, and 19-year-old son Luis and 17-year-old daughter Ali, wound up at a local hotel where he said he basically passed out for two days.

“To me it was like two hours,” Espinoza said. “Everybody’s calling me and calling me, nobody could find me. The hotel manager, who I knew, sent me home a couple of days later.”

Through the winter, Espinoza underwent therapy and he had his good days and bad. When Espinoza would attempt to go to the gym, he could not maintain his balance.

“When I see that I have no balance, I was shocked,” Espinoza said. “It’s very hard for me to accept that. Sometimes I feel normal and strong and everything. I feel great sometimes, sometimes not.”

Espinoza continues to go through physical therapy for his injured right shoulder, which, he said, was not initially diagnosed as being broken.
For now, his best mental therapy is seeing the success his brother is having on California Chrome, who has won his last four starts by 24 1/4 lengths. Jose Espinoza said he wants to attend the Derby, but added if he goes it would be a last-minute decision.

Espinoza perked up when asked what seeing his brother win the Derby would mean to him.

“Oh man, I’m going to feel great,” he said. “That’s going to be my medicine, my everything.”

Michael Riley More than 1 year ago
Jose and Victor are both outstanding jockeys and gentlemen. Jose rode my biggest winner ever, Unbridled Express at Saratoga back in the 90's at 70-1. Wire-to-wire!
Michael Riley More than 1 year ago
Yes, it was on the turf. A maiden I believe, who beat some 2-5 blue blood ridden by Bailey. Great ride Jose, heal well and heal soon.
ctgreyhound More than 1 year ago
Just another reason to be on the CA Chrome bandwagon. Hoping for better times ahead medically & otherwise for Jose.
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
Vaya con Dios,Jose
Geral John Pinault More than 1 year ago
Jose was becoming one of the better turf riders in NY. I'm sorry to hear of this Jose! Be well my friend... - RAMMER
Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Hang in there jock. The balance will get better. I'm an industry head-trauma case and was amazed/scared when released from the hospital and became aware of my own instability. It came back. Best wishes.
Richard Kennedy More than 1 year ago
Good article by DAVID GRENING, who I first started reading, when he wrote for the NEW Y0RK P0ST. We're lucky we got to read it, I hate DRF PLUS, another misguided idea by THE DAILY RACING F0RM.
Justin More than 1 year ago
Love the article but felt you could have used a bit more tact when choosing the head line. The other brother implies he's some kinda degenerate or cast-off
GuyFleegman1 More than 1 year ago
God Speed Jose!
Bob More than 1 year ago
Perhaps THE most under-rated turf rider in the country over the last 15 years! All the best Jose!
Robert Raimondo More than 1 year ago
I agree totally, in NY, once upon a time, if you wanted a price on the green, it was Jean-Luc and Jose....rolling with the double digits....when they could beat Mott and Bailey that is.....
Rick Lamond More than 1 year ago
Don't worry, Jose. Victor and California Chrome can do. It will be the best possible tonic. Best wishes in all future ventures and may God bless you and yours.