Play it By Ear: How Jockey Victor Espinoza Went From 14 Year-Old Bus Driver to First Latino To Win Triple Crown

Everybody wants to find a way to get paid to do what they love. But the path to making a living off your passions is often an unscripted journey filled with unexpected twists and turns, reinventions and surprises. After all, it’s estimated that our generation will change jobs 15-20 times over the course of our lifetimes. In our new Play it By Ear series, we’ll take a look at the career 180s that got some of the young creatives we’re excited about where they are today.

Can you imagine riding on a 44mph cloud? This Goku-style fantasy became reality for a very lucky Mexican: the “luckiest Mexican on earth.”

This year, jockey Victor Espinoza rose to glory by winning the Triple Crown title of Thoroughbred horse racing. It was the first Triple Crown victory – which entails winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont the same year with the same horse – since 1978. The Mexican rider is also the first jockey to do win the Triple Crown since 1995, which was the first and only time a jockey won using different horses.

According to Espinoza, riding American Pharoah was like riding a cloud. But in a sport where the credit is mostly given to the horse, Espinoza has been making quite a lot of noise –and gaining fans – lately. And how could he not? He’s an easy man to root for, from his underdog story to the reports that he donated all of his $800,000 prize money to a cancer research center in California.

But before he was making history, Espinoza –eleventh of twelve children born on a dairy farm – was driving a bus in his native Mexico to earn money; just a 14 year-old with a fake ID. “That’s handy, you know. You’re like a young kid in the early teenage years and you don’t know what you want,” Espinoza told the Chicago Tribune. “Learning to drive was a lot of fun. But I didn’t sleep that much, probably a couple of hours a day.” He’d take a break from his long, traffic jam-filled work days with weekends in the country. It was there, in the fresh air, that he learned to ride a horse. He couldn’t have known it then, but these weekend trips would change his life.



At 20, Espinoza decided to trade his bus driving gig in to chase a dream of a different kind of horsepower. But it wasn’t easy. He arrived in northern California to try to hustle mounts at Golden Gate Fields, where he struggled to adapt. “It was very tough for me, especially since I was in a new country and didn’t know the language,” he told the Tribune. “I didn’t know anybody there, and I didn’t know what would happen. I wondered if I should go back to Mexico.”

Today, nearly 20 years later, he is one of seven jockeys ever to have won three Kentucky Derbies, and one in six to have done so in back-to-back editions – achievements that will most surely get him into the Hall of Fame. Moreover, he’s only the 11th jockey ever to win the Triple Crown.

But if you ask him, the champion of champions is still just playing it by ear: ‘‘Many people ask me ‘How are you going to ride this horse?’ and I tell them I wish I knew. Some maybe thought that I am not telling the truth, but this is the truth,” he told “In the gate, I go like a blind guy. There is no plan. I make my decisions during the race.’’