Some people believe there is unfairness in the way the Triple Crown is run. You also could argue that it is unfair to consider a jockey a loser for falling short in the Belmont Stakes after he has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Victor Espinoza, though, thinks the unfairness that really matters is any that deprives a child of a fair shot at life.
For years, the jockey who hopes to ride American Pharoah into history Saturday has been determined to do something about the latter. He donates 10 percent of everything he wins to City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment center in Duarte, California -- near Espinoza's home, and not really all that far from the dairy farm in Mexico on which he grew up as the second youngest of 12.
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No one in his family suffered from childhood cancer and no one instructed him to tithe. "I just saw one kid with that disease and that's how I changed my life. I changed the way I think. Pretty much I changed everything," he said. "For me, health is No. 1."
His goal is to bestow healthy hope on children in the pediatric section of the hospital. He has visited only twice because it is just so emotional. The first time, he left in tears. The next time, between his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness last spring, he was all smiles before and after he distributed toys and racing silks.
"The kids 6 years old, 10 years old, it's just heartbreaking," the 43-year-old jockey said. "They have no idea what they're missing in life. But believe it or not, they're the happiest people. When I went to visit them twice, it was amazing to see them, how happy they were."
Espinoza overcame midcareer melancholy a few years ago, admitting now that he almost quit racing when he was in a slump.
"I woke up one day and said this is not good. I'm not going to end my career this way," he said. "The way I'm riding is not good. I made some changes. But the first change I made was on the inside, in my heart."
He looks on the bright side despite realizing he arguably is known more for having lost the Belmont in 2002 aboard War Emblem and last year on California Chrome than for winning the previous two classic races with each horse. He has confidence in American Pharoah, and the horse's owner and trainer have confidence in the jockey.
"Last year, he learned a lot," trainer Bob Baffert said at Belmont Park Friday. "Every time I looked up, he was closing the stock market, doing this, doing that, doing TV shows. It will exhaust him. I just told him he needs to tone it down a little bit."
Aside from imposing a curfew Friday night, Baffert's main instruction to Espinoza has been "relax." For his part, the jockey said the greatest lesson he has learned is this: "Not to lose."
A win Saturday would produce a million smiles at the City of Hope.