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Victor Espinoza gets back up on the horse after being paralyzed

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Jockey Victor Espinoza smiles as he works St. Joe Bay at Santa Anita on Jan. 5.
(Zoe Metz / Santa Anita)

Jockey Victor Espinoza couldn’t contain his smile, his infectious laugh punctuating many of his sentences. He was back Saturday where he felt most comfortable, where the hall of fame jockey is revered, where most of the well wishers were just glad to see him walking.

In the early morning at Santa Anita, Espinoza got on a horse for the first time since July 22 when his mount, Bobby Abu Dhabi, broke down during a workout at Del Mar, leaving the horse dead and Espinoza temporarily paralyzed. He worked St. Joe Bay five furlongs for trainer John Sadler. There were 102 horses that worked that distance Saturday morning; Espinoza’s ride was the third fastest.

He also made the walk from the barns to Clocker’s Corner for the first time in more than five months, being stopped every couple feet with hellos, handshakes and hugs. Victor Espinoza is back, almost.

“He’ll probably work horses next weekend, and then, we’ll make a decision about when to start taking calls,” said Brian Beach, his agent. Espinoza still has to be cleared by his doctors before he can return to riding full-time. His next appointment isn’t until the end of the month.

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Espinoza’s road back from a fractured C3 vertebra has not been easy, and many times, he wasn’t sure he would make it. But, for the 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey, he’s still reflecting on how just a few minutes could have changed everything.

The morning of the accident, trainer Peter Miller texted Beach at 5 a.m. asking if Espinoza would work stakes horse Bobby Abu Dhabi at 9 a.m. Espinoza had ridden the horse in his last four races. Normally, workouts, especially of good horses, are set up a few days in advance. But not this time.

Espinoza didn’t see a text from Beach until 8:30 a.m., leaving little time to get to the track. If Espinoza had seen the message 10 minutes later, his last five months would have been very different.

Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza fractured his C3 vertebrae in a training accident at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in July.

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“If I’ve ever regretted something in life, it was my regret to hurry up and go work that horse for Peter Miller,” Espinoza said. “I didn’t know who I was working until I got to the barn, and when I saw it was Bobby Abu Dhabi, I got a bad feeling, because I knew that horse wasn’t doing that great. But you just go out there and hope that nothing happens.

“It’s tough for a jockey to be in that position but how can you say ‘no’ at that point? You just have to pray and hope for the best and that nothing serious happens. But, the minute when I was going down, I thought, ‘I knew it.’ But, probably, that’s what was meant for me, but who knows? If it wasn’t me on the horse, maybe it would have been worse for the next person riding.”

The necropsy on Bobby Abu Dhabi showed that the horse initially broke his right front sesamoid and fell so hard that it also broke his neck killing him almost instantly. The report indicated there were no extenuating circumstances.

“When I went down, I didn’t feel anything,” Espinoza said. “It was like, I really can’t move my body. It started to hit me right away. I’ve never had that feeling before. Normally, when I hit the ground, I move around and I know where it hurts. You feel the pain. But this time I had no pain and I’m thinking ‘what’s going on?’ ”

Espinoza’s paralysis was temporary and the subsequent recovery excruciating.

“It was the hardest thing I ever experienced,” Espinoza said. “There were many times when I thought, maybe I just wasn’t going to come back. And I was OK with that because I was thankful enough that I was able to walk. When I started, I could only walk 10 feet and if I walked 20, I would be tired.”

Even Beach wasn’t sure if Espinoza still had a riding career in front of him.

“I would talk to him on the phone,” Beach said. “And some days I could tell he was a little less optimistic if his rehabilitation wasn’t going well. Then, he changed therapists, and everything started to turn the corner. We took him to a hand specialist, and whatever happened, it unlocked everything, and he could turn his neck and do more with his arm.”

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Espinoza can do more than that now and plans to make some life changes.

“I learned a lot about life,” Espinoza said. “Before, I probably took it for granted. Before, I was just dedicating myself to work and not doing other things in life. This accident really woke me up. I could have died, and what would it have meant to everything I have done? Nothing.

“I need to do more things that I really want to do. … If I want to go on vacation, then, I need to take off and go. The races are going to be here forever, but we’re not.”

Espinoza rode trainer Bob Baffert’s first Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and Espinoza said Baffert has promised him his first winner when he comes back.

“I’m waiting for it,” Espinoza said with a laugh. “The time is getting closer. Baffert is always good to me and always finds me the right horse. When the time is right, he’ll have the right horse for me.”

Baffert agrees.

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Jockey Victor Espinoza rides St. Joe Bay at Santa Anita on Jan. 5.
(Zoe Metz / Santa Anita)

“That’s right,” Baffert said to making that promise. “I’ve got to put him on a good one, maybe find him a homebred [with less ownership say so].”

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Espinoza has made many lasting friends through the years.

“[Owners Kosta and Pete Hronis] and John [Sadler] and Baffert, and his wife, Jill, they are always there for me,” Espinoza said. “It was good to have their support when I needed them. They know when they need me, I’m there to help them out.”

The time when he can answer that call is nearing.

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sports@latimes.com


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