There we were, in a press conference, chronicling normal euphoria and gathering normal quotes from the winners of the Kentucky Derby, when the story took a 90-degree turn.
Victor Espinoza was fighting back tears. And they weren’t tears of joy.
Until a week or so ago, horse racing knew Espinoza solely as one of the elite jockeys of the sport. He was good enough to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2002 and good enough to ride California Chrome to a Kentucky Derby victory on May 3. He is usually among the top 20 jockeys nationally in winnings each year.
Now the sport may start measuring this 5-foot-1 112-pounder in a slightly different way. By the size of his heart.
It all began in a Churchill Downs press room full of reporters, cameras, close connections of the winning horse and four of the key characters. Sitting at the head table behind microphones were trainer Art Sherman, assistant trainer Alan Sherman, half-owner Steve Coburn and Espinoza.
With Art Sherman and Coburn, it is always more than the norm. They are both a delight — quotable, insightful and fun. But Coburn, a bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment — winning the Kentucky Derby with his first horse, that he bred himself — brought up the death of his sister.
“The colt was born on my sister Brenda’s birthday,” he said. “She died of cancer at age 36. It will be 36 years this year since there was a Triple Crown winner.”
Espinoza, one chair away, turned and looked long and hard at Coburn.
“That’s when it started,” Espinoza said late last week.
Minutes later, in answer to a question that had everything to do with racing and nothing to do with cancer, a clearly shaken Espinoza made an uncharacteristic departure into the emotional.
“I just want to mention one thing,” he said. “I’ve always been for all the cancer people. I support that. One day, I went to the City of Hope [hospital]. All the kids, they have cancer. I can’t go there. Really, like I cry. Since that time, I donated 10% of my earnings for all the kids that have cancer. It makes me cry to see all the kids that can’t even have a life like we have.”
Now Coburn was reaching over to console Espinoza.
“It’s OK. It’s OK. Believe me, it’s OK,” Coburn said.
Espinoza wasn’t finished.
“I never cry. I only cry for this thing,” he said, adding that he hoped his Kentucky Derby victory, and its corresponding enhanced winnings, would help the kids at City of Hope.
Some of that made the papers the next day, but it understandably got lost in the normal post-Derby news.
Still, it cried out for elaboration, explanation.
That came last week, with Espinoza sitting at his locker in the jockeys’ room at Santa Anita, the interview interrupted frequently and happily by a parade of his peers, little men in colored silks, teasing him in Spanish and keeping him humble. You can win the Kentucky Derby 10 straight times and you’ll still get needled.
“It started about 10 years ago,” Espinoza began. “I have a friend, an older man. I won’t tell you his name because he is a private person. He started with nothing and is a millionaire. He has kids. I’m not married and don’t have kids.
“We go to lunch a lot. One day, he says we should do something, that we should go to City of Hope. I don’t know what City of Hope is.
“We walk in and I can’t stay. I see kids with no hair, other stuff. I was only in there maybe two minutes, if that. I went back out to the car and sat and waited for him.”
He repeated his line from the press conference, that he never cries.
“I cried then too,” he said.
Soon, he had quietly made his 10% pledge. There is a chance that, until that press conference at Churchill Downs — and maybe to this day — people at City of Hope had no idea where the checks were coming from.
“I do it through my bookkeeper, and my corporation,” Espinoza said. “My name’s not on it. Sometimes, he sends them monthly, sometimes every couple of months. Last year, we sent them every week.
“Sometimes, I forget to pay my bills, but I never forget about City of Hope.”
If Espinoza isn’t exaggerating, which would not be his style, the donations could have added up nicely. The numbers will remain private because that best serves both the sender and the receiver. Besides, as Espinoza said, he isn’t sure. The 10% was probably an estimate and he said his only desire is to keep them coming, in whatever size.
For speculation’s sake, if we look at this year, his mounts have earned about $5 million. His jockey’s 10% share of that would be $500,000, and a 10% donation of that would be $50,000. And it is only May.
On Tuesday, Espinoza is scheduled to return to City of Hope. He has been asked to do so by TV. It will likely be one of those cooked-up-for-TV, cue-the-violins things to be shown on Preakness Day on Saturday. The main intent is to keep viewers engaged in the hours of buildup to the race so the audience will be big for the expensive commercials.
It will be the first time Espinoza has been back since his first trip 10 years ago. And it could turn out to be must-see TV.
Cameras rolling, Espinoza sitting in a car, crying.