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Victor Espinoza returns to horse racing for first time since breaking his neck

Jockey comes back from broken neck injury

“Welcome back Victor.”

“Let’s go Victor.”

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“Go get ’em Victor.”

Fans offered warm, emotional words of encouragement to jockey Victor Espinoza on Monday at Santa Anita from the moment he emerged from the jockeys’ room and boarded his first official mount in seven months since breaking his neck in a morning spill last July at Del Mar.

“I’m completely lost,” Espinoza said jokingly as he wandered in the paddock gardens.

There were times Espinoza, 46, didn’t know if he would make it back. The rider of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome had real fears his riding career might be over.

“It was a big question not only for other people but for me, as to whether I could make it back,” he said with dirt on his nose and face after riding Gallantlystreaming to a second-place finish in the first race. “I couldn’t even walk 20 or 30 feet without getting tired, and now, to have recovered after seven months, it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”

Trainer John Sadler and Hronis Racing, the same connections for Breeders Cup Classic winner Accelerate, gave Espinoza his first mount. It was only fitting because Espinoza lost the mount on Accelerate after he was injured.

“It was a fun ride,” Espinoza said. “We got the first race out of the way and now we’ve got to go on and find the next champion.”

Espinoza has become a well-known representative for horse racing because of his recent success in the Triple Crown, plus his appearance in 2015 as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”

He’s had lots of people rooting for him in his comeback.

“He’s been working horses for me and actually looks in excellent condition,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. He went through a lot of depression. He was scared. He was a little bitter for a while. Now he’s all upbeat. The way his attitude is you’d think he already had a Derby mount.”

Veteran jockey Martin Pedroza, who has suffered his share of injuries, said he advised Espinoza, “When you come back, you’re going to feel like an apprentice, but then it goes away.”

Former jockey John Shear, the 98-year-old paddock captain who spent weeks in the hospital eight years ago after throwing his body between a 5-year-old girl and a loose horse, said jockeys are an inspiration for their fearlessness and toughness.

“To me, Victor is a tough jockey and tough man and won’t give in no matter how badly he’s hurt. The riders are the same,” he said. “They have a toughness in them. They forget what their problems are. It’s a tough life. They know they easily could get hurt.”

Espinoza, who competed in only the one race Monday, is ready to move forward and return as one of the top jockeys on the West Coast.

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“Basically, I appreciate everything in life,” he said. “I go day by day and continue my career surrounded by a lot of happy people.”

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