To hear Victor Espinoza tell it, “I was out of work for seven months. Now I'm back working again.”
With every bit of humor there's a touch of truth, but when the 46-year-old Hall of Fame member and Triple Crown winner rolled to a three-length victory on 15-1 outsider St. Joe Bay in Saturday's Grade II San Carlos Stakes at Santa Anita, it unleashed a wide range of emotions.
Espinoza had been out of action since last July when he suffered serious injuries in a training mishap at Del Mar. On more than one occasion during his arduous recovery, he questioned whether he would return to riding.
But when St. Joe Bay broke on top, opened a 4 ½-length lead into the stretch of the seven furlong race, and was never threatened to the wire, any doubts Victor had vanished.
“It was all about confidence because the horse was doing it so nicely,” Espinoza said Sunday morning. “He was just cruising along at a comfortable pace and we got the job done. I wasn't thinking about winning turning for home, but when I saw the wire 20 feet away, that's when I started to get excited.
“It was my first win since I came back and it's always nice to get the first one out of the way. It was great to win for John (Sadler) and the Hronis brothers (owners of St. Joe Bay) because of all the support they have given me before and after my accident.
“They've always looked out for me, always checked on me, so it was great for me to win on one of their horses.”
It was the first stakes win for Espinoza since last May 28, when he won the Monrovia Stakes on Belvoir Bay for Peter Miller, and it should help business.
“Hopefully, it'll pick some people's heads up,” said agent Brian Beach, who books mounts for Victor and his nephew, apprentice Assael Espinoza. “I think everybody's been taking a wait and see approach and want to see him ride other people's horses.
“They're reacting like they need to see him ride, like he has to prove himself all over again. But anybody who knows Victor knows how hard he's worked in the gym and with physical therapy to get back to where he is.
“You don't have to worry about his fitness or whether he's ready to go, because he wouldn't be back riding without being ready to go.
“He's always told me he wouldn't come back unless he's 100 percent.”
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