Quest has brought brothers together
From 50 feet away, you can’t tell the brothers apart.
Purple ballcap on each, dark jeans, the same shoes. Same jockey height.
They’re being interviewed together by a TV crew on the Belmont Park apron Wednesday morning because Victor Espinoza will be shooting for a Triple Crown on Saturday and Jose lives a few miles away. Jose was by his brother’s side at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
They almost look like twins up close, too, except that Jose has a purplish-red bruise under his left eye and stitches on his eyebrow, and my ridiculous knee-jerk thought is, “Wait . . . that was last summer.”
But, no, the horrible spill that smashed up Jose Espinoza’s face at Saratoga didn’t cause this. Jose was on his way to a doctor appointment the other day, of all things, got a little dizzy and popped himself opening the car door.
Careers intertwined when they were teenagers in Mexico City, lives shared, the brothers’ paths couldn’t be more divergent now. But the timing of Victor’s Triple Crown run on California Chrome couldn’t have been better, in terms of its therapeutic value.
“It’s very exciting for me and keeping me up for everything,” Jose said. “I haven’t been coming to the track much before Victor won the Kentucky Derby.”
Jose was 43 when I met him for the first time last year for a profile of his agent, Nick Soulis, a Capital Region kid who played football at Albany Academy and just wanted a career on the backstretch.
Nick’s dad, Steve, ruefully remarked how closely his son’s livelihood depended on Jose’s health. Four days later, Aug. 17, Jose, in the midst of the greatest Saratoga meet of his long journeyman career, rode his last race.
His filly, Heading to Toga, broke her right foreleg beyond the finish line of a turf sprint, sending Jose to the deck. Another filly, Guyana Star, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, stumbled over Heading to Toga, who was euthanized on the track.
Jose Espinoza, meanwhile, had his own problems. Knocked unconscious, he had a broken shoulder and a broken nose, leaving a river of blood on the lush green turf. The game breaker came later, when doctors could gauge the brain trauma that would end his career.
“Just pure devastation,” Soulis said. “I was actually in the racing office waiting for entries. You heard in Durkin’s voice, after the wire, “. . . and Heading to Toga goes down.” He was real quiet, and it’s not like Tom to be that quiet.”
Soulis ran out to the track in time to see Maragh weighing out.
“His face was pale white as he was walking back off the scale,” Soulis said. “I said, ‘Rajiv, is my jock OK?’
Jose spent five days at Albany Medical Center while doctors sorted the new injuries from puzzle pieces past.
He was a mess, but rebuildable based on the standards that jockeys apply to injuries in their incredibly dangerous job. Until doctors found bleeding on the brain, which, coupled with previous concussions, put the long-term prognosis into a whole new category.
“It’s just crazy what happens,” Victor said. “It’s the reason I always worried about him. He broke his ankle before, it was bad, too, couple spills, but now this is different. This is dangerous.”
Jose’s recollection of the race was that his filly broke down at the quarter pole.
People insisted otherwise, so he gritted his teeth and forced himself to watch the replay a few months later.
“Those type of things, you don’t want to see,” he said. “I was 100 percent certain it was at the quarter pole. I wanted to see for myself.”
He exhibited other signs of head trauma, dizziness, loss of balance, conditions that persist today.
But even if Jose had regained those faculties, doctors determined that he could be easily paralyzed or even die from further head trauma, so that was it.
“It’s very, very hard,” he said. “Because I know I can do most things on the horses, but not the [race] riding.”
Victor said he doesn’t know how depressed this manner of career termination may have made his brother.
“We don’t have that conversation,” he said. “I don’t want to have any depressing conversations with him. He makes fun of me, I make fun of him, so we laugh and just . . . he’s done a lot better. Because the first few days I was here, he was not really like before. He was down a little bit, so I tried to motivate him a little bit.
“I can see the difference in how he acts, how he thinks. It’s completely different. Not the same. It is crazy, how he changes from one day to the next. But hopefully, he can recover. I know he’s going to take time.”
One year after Jose rode in his first Derby, a 10th by Giant Finish, he was reluctant about attending this year’s and was swayed at the last minute by what he saw in his brother’s horse.
Then, it was get me to the Churchill on time.
“Hour and a half before post time, but I made it,” Jose said, laughing.
“When I saw him in the winner’s circle, he looked so happy, almost like it was him riding the horse, with his brother,” said Soulis, who is booking mounts for Mike Luzzi now.
The future is foggy for Jose.
The present is crystal clear.
His brother has a chance to make history on Saturday, and whether Jose wants to be around a racetrack or not, he wants to be around this one, this week, as much as possible.
“I can’t explain how hard it is for me right now. It’s been eight months, and it still feels like the first day.
“But not right now. I’m coming for a different situation, I’m coming for my brother. I’m not thinking about me.”