The name “Victor Espinoza” has most of the racing community thinking of a certain Triple Crown-winning jockey. To anyone familiar with Brookdale Farm in Versailles, Ky., however, the name brings to mind a different individual.
Brookdale's Victor Espinoza epitomizes the spirit of Godolphin's newest initiative, the Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards. Intended to “to identify and acknowledge, to celebrate and reward the true heroes and backbone of our industry,” in the words of Godolphin America president Jimmy Bell, the TIEA awards bring a new level of recognition to racing's behind-the-scenes employees.
Espinoza, 54, has worked for Brookdale Farm for 32 years, moving all the way up the ladder from yearling groom to farm manager. Veterinarian Dr. Jeffrey Berk, who nominated Espinoza for Godolphin's Farm Leadership Award, said that the man's unending dedication to the farm and its employees is surpassed only by his ever-present “air of grace and humility.”
“His leadership skills are evident…he works alongside his crew, teaching them how to work effectively by example,” Berk explained. “He treats all employees like family members, showing concern for them as people and not just as an expendable work force.”
Though Godolphin has similar programs in England, Ireland, Australia and France, Espinoza admits he hadn't heard of the U.S.-geared TIEA awards until he was informed of his 2016 nomination.
“I was very surprised,” said Espinoza, an infectious smile spreading across his face. “Back then, I didn't know how big it was. I figured if I won it, it's not that big!”
It may have been the first time the awards were offered in the U.S., but the effort put forth for last year's inaugural edition by Godolphin and the National HBPA, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) and The Jockey Club has drawn a new level of attention to what often can be very thankless jobs. The top prize for each of six categories includes not only a commemorative trophy, but also $10,000.
Characteristically, Espinoza sent most of his prize money back to his family in Mexico, saving the rest for his retirement. To him, the award wasn't about money.
“You know, you come, you do your job and you go home, don't worry about it,” Espinoza said, describing that majority of the industry's employees. “To me, finally, they came up with a face for those guys. Behind the scenes, there's a whole lot of people who work on these things. I hope this award gives a whole lot of people the same opportunity.”
For a kid from a small town in Mexico, the TIEA award could be seen as the culmination to his lifelong dream. Espinoza grew up with the knowledge that he was destined to be a factory worker, along the lines of his union-leading father. He adds that he could have gone to college, but all the corruption in Mexico would have meant buying his way into most any job after graduation.
“I wanted to be outside, to work outdoors,” he said. “I used to go help one of my good friends milking some cows in the afternoons, and they let us ride the horses on the weekends. We had some Quarter Horses, some working mules, and we'd just put the saddle to anything and ride up in the mountains.”
On Sundays, he attended match racing out in the “bushes,” and only fell more in love with the horses. While traveling to the United States to pursue his passion occasionally crossed Espinoza's mind, he usually dismissed the idea as an impossibility.
In Mexico, making it to the United States was an all-too-common dream for most, chasing the jobs and opportunities offered on the northern side of the Rio Grande. The problem was a financial one – making it across the border required cash, and plenty of it.
One fateful afternoon, a friend told Espinoza about a crew heading up north. Somehow, the 19-year-old scraped together just enough money to make it to the border. He would eventually secure a Green Card establishing his legal status.
“I didn't have enough to get back to my hometown, or for any emergencies or anything,” he said, swallowing hard. “I didn't know what I was going to do; there was no Plan B.”
Espinoza's willingness to work and basic knowledge of horses found him easy employment at racetracks across the southwestern United States. For nearly three years he traipsed across the country, working at different tracks and learning everything he could about the Thoroughbred. The travel got to be overwhelming, so Espinoza took a job at a Saddlebred farm in Lexington, Ky. Shortly thereafter, he met his future wife.
“All I wanted to learn on the Saddlebreds was how to groom a horse, how to clip a horse, all those little things that they do, and it's a lot,” he laughed. “They had me over there (on the farm) for like seven months, then they told me I needed to move up to the real thing. I spent about five months traveling, and they go everywhere. I think I did every single show that those farms go to. It was pretty neat and interesting, but when my first kid was born, I felt like I needed to be home with him.”
Near the end of the summer in 1985, Espinoza finally gave in to a friend who'd been trying to get him to apply for a job at Brookdale Farm, which had been established two years earlier by Fred Seitz. Hired after just one conversation, Espinoza's first position was as a groom in the yearling barn, preparing young Thoroughbreds for the sales ring.
“It was slightly different, but it was a pretty easy transition,” he said. “But when you start a new job, you just don't know how long you're going to stay. You know, I was a young guy, so I didn't take anything too seriously. I worked hard, though, and I didn't mind staying late or working the extra short shift.
“To work hard, to me, is not a problem.”
The job he'd assumed would last approximately a month quickly turned into several, and it wasn't long before Espinoza transferred over to the stallion barn. In those days, Brookdale was home to several top sires, including Deputy Minister.
Deputy Minister was the horse who would literally leave his mark on Espinoza. In the young groom's first week in the stallion barn, Deputy Minister bit him, grabbing him by the chest.
“Luckily I had coveralls and two jackets on, but the pain was pretty bad,” said Espinoza, who then admitted the stallion was still his favorite horse. “(The stallion manager) asked me, 'Are you sure you want to stay here in the stallion barn?' And I said yes. It was a good, fast-paced job, and it was kind of fun.”
Several more years passed, and Espinoza was promoted to stallion manager.
“Being the stallion manager, people used to tell me how big and important that was, but I said, 'Well, yeah, but I've still got to work,'” he said. “On top of being the stallion manager, I was able to move around, check mares, check yearlings, help wherever I was needed. The title never meant a whole lot to me; being a stallion manager wasn't a big deal. I'm not shy, but I don't like the spotlight.”
Espinoza's attitude remained the same when he was chosen to be Brookdale's farm manager. After all, not much had changed, as he'd always played an active role in all the farm's activities.
“This farm is small enough for a person to be everywhere,” said Espinoza. “When you work hard, and you kind of know every horse, that's really not that tough. You know the horse, you know what he likes, how he acts… it's like working with a person. They have different personalities.”
While Espinoza's personal story and his diligent work habits are certainly admirable, what really sets him apart is the atmosphere at Brookdale. Espinoza insists that the Seitz family's generosity is a major factor, explaining that there is a staff luncheon the last Friday of every month.
“The boss eats at the same table with us,” Espinoza said. “He just blends with us, and makes us feel like we belong with him. It's a family-oriented farm, and it makes you feel like a part of the family.”
Dr. Jeffrey Berk, however, insists Espinoza's leadership plays a defining factor.
“He has assisted in creating a culture on the farm where you have people that are productive, wanting to work hard,” Berk explained. “They're happy because they're being well-treated; they understand what the requirements are of them, and they're happy to perform them. It's probably the happiest and most productive horse farm I've ever worked on.”
“I guess it's because of respect,” Espinoza said when pressed. “If I show them some respect, they want to repay that respect. I don't know if it's just the Latino way, but I find when you respect a person enough, they respect you even more. You work with them; I don't mind to get dirty and everything. Don't tell them how to do the job, teach them how to do the job. I don't mind to get in the stalls, and everything. Sometimes all it takes is a handshake. I just talk to them by name, make them feel appreciated.”
Though age has begun to creep into the lines on his face, Espinoza and his infectious smile aren't looking to retire just yet. He hopes to be around to watch future TIEA winners take their turn in the spotlight, and perhaps even to have helped one of them on their journey.
“To me, (the award) kind of puts a face to the hero, to the person who otherwise has no face,” Espinoza summarized. “I think it's the greatest idea to finally put a face to the person who used to think that nobody cares.”
Nominations for the 2017 Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards are due on Aug. 1. For more information, including how to nominate, go to https://godolphinusawards.com/
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