A Kentucky Derby jockey explained the surprising reason it's hard for riders to change horses so often
- Hall of Fame and Kentucky Derby jockey Victor Espinoza said changing horses is one of the hardest parts of his job.
- Espinoza said it isn't hard to adjust to new horses — it's hard not to get attached to them and have to change at a moment's notice.
- Espinoza said it only takes him a few minutes to get acquainted with a horse and that he sometimes sees them just once before big races.
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Victor Espinoza has ridden on many different horses in the Kentucky Derby.
Though he's not competing this year, last year he rode Bolt d'Oro — a different horse than he rode in 2017, different than he rode in 2016, different than 2015 when he won the race on American Pharoah, and so on.
Espinoza told Business Insider last year that changing horses is one of the hardest aspects of his job, and not because of the rate of turnover. Instead, like most people, jockeys get attached to the animals.
"It's the hardest, hardest thing to get attached to the horses and knowing that we don't own it," Espinoza said. "We're just there race by race."
As Espinoza noted, jockeys don't own the horses — they're riders for hire. He said it can be emotional having to change horses if an owner decides to change jockeys.
"A lot of times it's very emotional," Espinoza said. "Unfortunately for jockeys, we don't own the horse. It's hard to not get attached to those champions. But it's any time, the owner maybe will get upset, and that's it — they will take you off and put in someone else. You just have to mentally deal with it and try to move on. It's hard. It's not easy."
Perhaps contrary to belief, jockeys don't always spend much time with horses before riding them. For instance, in 2002, when Espinoza won the Kentucky Derby for the first time, he hadn't seen the horse, War Emblem, until that very day. He spent a little more time with 2014 winner, California Chrome, but estimated he only saw American Pharoah once before riding him.
"Because I've been doing it for so many years, I will figure out the horse quick," Espinoza said. He estimated it takes him five to ten minutes to figure out what he needs to know about the horse.
Once they're together, they're a team. Espinoza said an atmosphere like the Kentucky Derby can be overwhelming for the horses. As they walk to the track, he does his best to bond with the horse and keep him calm.
"The minute I get on with him, I will just try to calm him down as much as possible and try to be quiet and just pet him," Espinoza said. "Trying to get him a little bit more confident that nothing bad's gonna happen to them, you know? It gets to that, 'You know what, I'm here for you, and I would never let anything bad happen to you.'
"Just have fun and just try to get him to relax."
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