04/24/2014 5:27PM

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

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.”