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California Chrome jockey, older brother share roots with horses

Silver Screamer, with Jose Espinoza riding, wins the

Silver Screamer, with Jose Espinoza riding, wins the $100,000 Eatontown Stakes horse race at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., Saturday, June 30, 2012. Credit: AP / Bill Denver

Jose Espinoza, wearing a purple California Chrome baseball cap, watched as his younger brother stood at a podium in front of a microphone at Belmont Park, with reporters holding out smartphones to record his words, digital cameras clicking furiously and television cameras capturing every moment.

Saturday is to be Victor Espinoza's second time to go the 11/2-mile distance with a Triple Crown on the line, riding "Chromie," as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner has come to be called. With his brother looking on last weekend, the star jockey fielded questions about the track and the racehorse's workout.

Jose, 44, kept a low profile, wearing sunglasses to cover the bruising and the scar that remain around his left eye. The past few months have been a rehab of sorts for the former jockey, forced into early retirement in August after a bad spill at the Saratoga Race Course left him with a traumatic brain injury.

"It's very, very hard for me, since the first time the doctor told me," Jose said.

He protested, he said, after physicians told him he could never risk riding again -- even for leisure. One doctor replied: " 'If you want to ride a horse, it's going to take a long time, but to me it doesn't look like you're going to ride a horse,' " he said. "I was sad. I couldn't believe it."

Born three years apart, the Espinoza brothers grew up in Mexico among 10 other siblings, and they always shared a love of horses. When Jose was in his late teens, he called on Victor to help him in a job where he was training quarter horses. The two young men were the whole operation -- trainers, riders, farriers and veterinarians, and together learned to do it all.

Victor came to the United States first, and was riding in major stakes races in the early 1990s. Jose followed in 1995.

Jose was a professional jockey for 18 years. Like many in the intense, dangerous field, he can't count the number of falls and broken bones he racked up across that time, and doesn't care to remember them.

The hit he took that day at Saratoga was more severe -- the filly he was riding broke down after crossing the wire, breaking one of her front legs. Jose was thrown, hitting his head and breaking his nose. Taken to a hospital in Albany, at first he could speak only in Spanish. The horse was euthanized.

"This was different" from other falls, said Rufina Jacome, Jose's wife. The couple, who have four children, live in Franklin Square, and after she raced upstate to see her husband, "he just slept all the time."

Jacome and Jose Espinoza grew up together, riding horses in rural Hidalgo, Mexico, almost 40 years ago as kids. Jacome loved the horses and her husband's career almost as much as he did -- after the accident, there were periods of deep depression and frustration when doctors told Espinoza he would be putting himself in serious danger if he ever rode again.

"The doctors told me everything that is going to happen to me if I have another concussion from falling from a horse," Jose said. "I can die or be a vegetable -- or forget everything. I don't feel I can risk that. I can't take that big chance."

Still, he is torn, yearning to ride even as he knows the danger it poses.

"I want to die on the horse," he said.

Now, Jose's suits, which he always wore to the track before changing into racing silks, stay pressed in the closet. For awhile, he rarely shaved, Jacome said. For months, he couldn't make the drive to a doctor's appointment without sleeping in the backseat of his wife's car. During his ongoing recovery, each made a point of trying not to cry in front of the other.

"It's been really hard for me," said Jacome, a home health aide who became her husband's caretaker after the accident left him unable to do much except sleep for months. "But for my husband, even harder."

Then, during the run-up to the Kentucky Derby in early May, Jose's mood started to change, Jacome said. He watched from the stands as his brother rode California Chrome to victory in the Derby in Kentucky and the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. As the fervor around the team grew, he got more and more excited.

After the Preakness, Victor called his brother his "good luck charm." More recently, Jose said he thought the thrill of the campaign was a sort of medicine for him.

Now, the two are reunited on Long Island, counting down to Saturday. "He's my driver -- that's the scary part. I have a crazy driver like him. I have to be alert," Victor joked as the brothers sat in the jockey room at Belmont last weekend.

Because Jose's family lives on Long Island and Victor lives in California, the last time they spent this much time together was in 2002, they said, when Victor was making his Triple Crown bid on War Emblem.

That dream ended harshly when War Emblem stumbled and went to his knees coming out of the gate at Belmont. Though Espinoza recovered quickly, the colt finished eighth.

"I'm nervous for him, because I don't know what's going to happen that day," Jose said of Saturday's race, dubbed "The Test of the Champion" because it's one-quarter-mile, or longer, than the Derby or the Preakness. This time around, though, he said, something feels different.

"This is the job for us," Jose said. "It's nice to see somebody be in the top -- especially someone who's family."

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