Nearly two weeks after falling off his horse and sustaining a spinal cord injury in Del Mar, Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza walked into a conference room at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas on Aug. 2 and said he's hoping he'll ride again someday but his main focus is getting better.
Espinoza, an American Thoroughbred racer for 25 years, suffered a fracture to the C3 vertebrae in his neck on the morning of July 22 when his 4-year-old colt Bobby Abu Dhabi suffered a fatal heart attack while running full speed and dropped to the ground, throwing Espinoza off.
In a news conference Aug. 2 at Scripps Encinitas, Espinoza, a 2015 Triple Crown winner, said he was fully conscious during the incident and quickly realized he could not move his body. He feared never being able to walk again, let alone ride a horse.
"I fell many times before, but not like this," the jockey said Aug. 2, the day he was to be discharged from his 11-day stay. "It was the scariest moment ever. I didn’t know what would happen. Nothing hurt. That was the scary part."
Luckily, on the way to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where he was treated, Espinoza regained movement in both his legs and his right arm. He still experiences pain in his left arm, he said.
Scripps physician Dr. Jihad Jaffer said Espinoza suffered no paralysis or broken bones, and the damage wasn't severe enough to require surgery. The rider is, however, being required to wear a neck brace to help prevent further injury for about six weeks.
Jaffer said Espinoza has made daily progress through rehabilitation that focuses on strengthening weak areas and improving coordination of movement. The rider will continue in an outpatient rehab program after being released, the doctor added.
Espinoza credits the doctors at Scripps for his recovery.
"I believe that's why I feel good," he said. "I'm getting better and better every day. ... The doctors were good. They're the best, and I thank them because I believe with good doctors, we get good care. ... They've taken care of me like a king."
Espinoza and Jaffer agreed that time and patience are key during the rider's recovery.
Jaffer said the goal now is to get Espinoza to the point of continuing rehab at home without an inpatient or outpatient program and getting him back into the community.
As for Espinoza, he said he's focusing on getting better but ideally would like to ride a horse again someday.
"That's my job," he said. "That's my thing. I'm the best at it."