Jockey Jose Espinoza found it difficult to talk about horses following a physically devastating accident more than eight months ago at Saratoga Race Course that could have easily left him paralyzed.
But in early April, he decided to watch the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on TV and discovered his younger brother was warming up the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby—eventual Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner California Chrome.
"I was shocked," Jose Espinoza said. "Right after the wire, I was so excited. I called my brother, and told him: 'You gave a great ride.' He said, 'No, this is a nice horse.' "
The remarkable 5 1/4-length victory at Santa Anita by Steven Corburn and Perry Martin's homebred reawakened Jose's passion for horse racing.
He started following the 3-year-olds and realized Victor did indeed have a very special mount in California Chrome.
"I told him, 'You're going to win the Kentucky Derby with this horse. You are going to just gallop with this horse.' He said, 'What are you going to do?' I told him if he wins the Kentucky Derby then I would retire."
Jose Espinoza truly believed the Derby belonged to his brother, but he was not sure if he could be at Churchill Downs to see it. His accident at Saratoga Aug. 17, caused when he was violently thrown to the ground after the breakdown of Heading to Toga just past the wire, left him with brain trauma, a broken right shoulder, a broken nose, and facial fractures.
"I waited to see how I feel," Jose said of traveling to Louisville for the Derby. "Some days I can't get up; I feel horrible. But I realized I had to go, no matter how I feel. I felt he would win this race, and I wanted to be there in the winner's circle. All jockeys have this dream to win this kind of race. I am not that lucky to win this race, at least I'll be in there with my brother."
Jose Espinoza got on a plane in his home state of New York at 9 a.m. ET on Derby day and made it to Churchill Downs by 4 p.m. He only had enough time to wish Victor good luck.
As the race unfolded, Jose said he knew his prediction of victory was coming true.
"When I see the horses coming by the three-eighths (pole), I started celebrating because I know Victor has a ton of horse," Jose said. "I know his hands, and I know his horse. Then I remembered I told Victor: 'If you win the Kentucky Derby, then I'm going to retire.' Then it was like, 'Oh, wait!' "
Victor's great journey with California Chrome has been a powerful tonic for Jose.
"I feel like I win the race," Jose said. "I feel like I am on the horse every step of the way. Now I feel like I could be strong enough to come back. I want to stay with the horses."
What role Jose Espinoza may play in the industry is still very much up in the air, however. After the accident, doctors told him if he tried riding again another accident could cost him his life.
"I have to be very careful with my life," Espinoza said. "I follow all the instructions. I'll cross my fingers and my body will let me know if I can come back."