Jockey Victor Espinoza riding again months after training incident that left him paralyzed

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Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza, who was paralyzed after an incident that left his horse dead while training in July, rode again this weekend for the first time since the incident. (Tasia Wells/Getty Images)
Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza, who was paralyzed after an incident that left his horse dead while training in July, rode again this weekend for the first time since the incident. (Tasia Wells/Getty Images)

Jockey Victor Espinoza got back on a horse Saturday for the first time since a July accident that left his horse dead and him paralyzed with a broken neck.

Espinoza — who led American Pharoah to win the first Triple Crown in 37 years in 2015 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame last year — worked St. Joe Bay five furlongs for trainer John Sadler in Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times, and rode the third fastest time among the 102 horses that raced that distance on Saturday.

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He has yet to be fully cleared by doctors to return to riding full time, but has an appointment set later this month.

“He’ll probably work horses next weekend, and then, we’ll make a decision about when to start taking calls,” his agent Brian Beach told the Los Angeles Times.

Espinoza was paralyzed on the track in July

Espinoza was riding Bobby Abu Dhabi on July 22 at the Del Mar racetrack in Southern California when Abu Dhabi suddenly went into cardiac arrest on the track. The 46-year-old was thrown off the horse and flung to the ground where remained motionless. The horse died almost instantly.

He was then taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a fracture of his C3 vertebrae in his neck, which had a paralyzing effect.

“When I went down, I didn’t feel anything,” Espinoza told the Los Angeles Times. “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 required round-the-clock care after the accident while he slowly regained movement across his body over the next five months, a rehab process he described as “the hardest thing I ever experienced.”

“There were many times when I thought, maybe I just wasn’t going to come back,” Espinoza told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Espinoza nearly didn’t train that day

Espinoza received a text from Beach at 8:30 a.m. that morning asking if he would work out Abu Dhabi at 9, as he had ridden that horse in his previous four races.

Espinoza didn’t have much time to get to the track. Had he seen the message just minutes later, he wouldn’t have made it in time at all — something that could have saved the jockey from the incident entirely.

“If I’ve ever regretted something in life, it was my regret to hurry up and go work that horse for Peter Miller,” Espinoza told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Now that he’s nearly through the process and healthy again, Espinoza said he has a new outlook on life.

“Before, I probably took it for granted,” Espinoza told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

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