It was never really about the money, but at 3:55 p.m., the potential for Eddie Espinoza to be a millionaire still existed. The 71-year old retired box salesman stood in the winner’s circle of the Santa Anita racetrack surrounded by people he loved, staring up at the big screen to watch the race that could change his life.
Espinoza had bet on all eight races at Santa Anita, and lost all of them, but none of those races involved California Chrome, the horse he’s been banking on since April.
Espinoza got here by having the winning entry in the inaugural Santa Anita Derby Millionaire Contest, which would pay out $1,000,00 if the contestant could correctly pick a Triple Crown winner. The pick was California Chrome, the same horse that dominated the Santa Anita Derby a month before its Triple Crown bid began.
After Eddie chose his horse, Santa Anita placed a $7,500 bet for him at the Kentucky Derby and another $10,000 bet for him at the Preakness — a race that Espinoza and his wife, Susan, watched in Baltimore, thanks again to the track. So with the two wins, Eddie had already earned $49,000 before Saturday, and was also able to meet California Chrome and the horse’s trainer, Art Sherman, at Pimlico.
The offer was on the table to fly to New York and watch the Belmont, but that would mean leaving behind what he cared about. Instead, more than 60 family members and friends from his church, St. Mary’s Parish, came to the track.
“All my friends and family are here,” Espinoza said before the race. “That’s almost the best part of the whole thing. If he wins, great, but if he doesn’t, hey, it’s been a good ride.”
He’s been coming to Santa Anita for about 40 years, and more regularly in the last 20. His sister and niece don’t get to leave the house much, but on Saturdays, the three of them go to the track. There’s never a lot of money bet, maybe $20, but nothing beats the feeling of watching his niece and sister win. Espinoza could lose every bet, but if gets to see his niece smile and laugh, it’s a good day.
After Espinoza’s first wife died of cancer, he and Susan Otero met through a mutual friend. They were both in the corrugated box business until retirement, and have been married for 14 years.
As soon as Espinoza won the contest, he told his wife that he wanted to donate most of it to Saint Mary’s. Sure, she said, but you also need to donate some to City of Hope, a nonprofit cancer-research organization. On Saturday, they stood in the winner’s circle and stared at the big screen as California Chrome shot out of the gate. Espinoza watched calmly, while his wife was so nervous she bent over and put her hands on her knees. There they stood as California Chrome came to the head of the stretch but didn’t have enough left to finish off the Triple Crown.
At 3:58, just like that, Espinoza’s theoretical money was gone. He shrugged his shoulders and turned around, giving hugs and shaking hands. He was more emotional about thanking people for making the trip than he was about the race.
At 4:19, Espinoza returned back to his box.
All around him were people still grappling with the idea of losing something that he never actually had, still questioning what had just transpired, but there stood Espinoza, calm and smiling, surrounded by the only thing he really cared about all along.