When you become the first Triple Crown-winning jockey in almost four decades, it's hard to come up with another career highlight to add to the bucket list.
That's one of the reasons American Pharoah rider Victor Espinoza told the Paulick Report that he's contemplating retirement at the end of 2016.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the world's best known jockeys admits he doesn't miss the saddle when he spends time away for a publicity event or awards ceremony.
“I didn't really get into the races. I don't love racing. I didn't grow up in racing,” he said. “I love horses.”
For Espinoza, becoming a jockey was a matter of practicality, not passion. He didn't spend his childhood going to the racetrack and filling his head with Kentucky Derby dreams. He grew up on a dairy farm in Mexico and paid for jockey school by driving a bus as a teenager. Espinoza looks back on the start of his career as tough, slow going.
“I didn't have anybody to teach me,” he said of his early days in the U.S., noting that while his career first win in 1993 came quickly, his second victory was much slower in the making; he guesses the second win didn't happen until about three months later. He thought he would spend just a few years as a jockey before moving on to something else, and his initial struggles to get good mounts nearly convinced him to quit.
There were several other points during his career when Espinoza thought about walking away. Around 2000, he remembers losing the mount on eventual two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow just before the horse hit the big time; for him, the rider change and the horse's subsequent success underscored just how difficult it is to become associated with the right horse at the right time.
About 2008, Espinoza felt his career had become stagnant and thought about hanging up his tack. After all, he had a Kentucky Derby and a Preakness trophy at that point. Espinoza said he realized he could either send his career out with a fizzle or with a bang and he preferred the latter option.
In 2013 he switched agents, changed his philosophy, and began working harder in hopes of gaining some graded stakes titles before leaving the saddle for good. Like a football player, he studied tape of races he lost to other jockeys and internalized their techniques and form, practicing on a mechanical horse until the movements became second nature.
Even though American Pharoah's Triple Crown victory has opened doors for Espinoza to traverse the globe to ride or make public appearances, he said the travel wears on him. He hates flying, and though he enjoys seeing new places, he's often in and out of a new city so quickly he doesn't actually experience much of it. There's also the ever-present knowledge that he needs to watch his diet and continue working out when he's away from home to keep in shape for his next mounts.
Fans of American Pharoah should know that although Espinoza doesn't love race riding, he does feel a genuine bond with the horse. He also sees irony in the fact that so many of his colleagues have riding in their bones but it was him who broke the Triple Crown spell.
Espinoza's sponsorship deal with Monster energy drink is up at the end of 2016 (he said the company had requested a longer contract when he signed with them but he negotiated a shorter one to give himself an out if he wanted to quit). At the moment, he has plans to walk away when the contract is up, though he admits that depends somewhat on how this year's racing season goes.
So what would be next for the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years? Nothing, he said. He enjoys studying the stock market, but he expects he can afford to make his time his own.
“I won't do anything I don't want to do.”
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