Victor Espinoza, who won the Triple Crown last year with American Pharoah and who has donated generously to charities such as City of Hope for years, was announced Wednesday by Santa Anita as the winner of the 2016 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, presented annually at Santa Anita to a rider who brings credit to the sport both on and off the track.
Espinoza, 43, certainly did all that last year. Not only did he ride the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, but he presented a positive image of racing in many arenas, including as a competitor on "Dancing With the Stars," a repeat guest on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," and as a presenter at the CMT Music Awards.
In conjunction with American Pharoah, Espinoza last year won the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Breeders' Cup Classic, which was a fitting coda for the 2015 Horse of the Year.
Espinoza will be presented with the award at Santa Anita on March 13, the day after he is scheduled to ride his current Kentucky Derby candidate Smokey Image in the San Felipe Stakes.
The Woolf Award is voted on by jockeys nationwide. Espinoza has not been a member of the Jockeys' Guild for years, and that often led to back-channel maneuvering that kept him off the ballot in recent years. But there's no denying his qualifications based on what the award stands for as Espinoza has now won the Kentucky Derby three times and frequently visits and makes donations to the pediatric cancer research ward at City of Hope. He donates 10 percent of his earnings to City of Hope.
"It's quite an honor for any rider to be selected by his peers as the winner of such a prestigious award," Terry Meyocks, the national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, said in a press release. "And I would like to congratulate Victor on this great achievement."
Espinoza received more votes than the four other finalists, Javier Castellano, Joe Bravo, Gerard Melancon, and Joe Steiner, all veteran riders like Espinoza. All five finalists were men. The Woolf Award has never been won by a female rider.
Castellano should be on deck. A gracious man whose deportment has been exemplary, he set a single-season record for earnings last year, which was enough to wrest the Eclipse Award for champion jockey from Espinoza. Castellano has now won the Eclipse Award for champion jockey the past three years. He is the son-in-law of Meyocks.
The Woolf Award is named in memory of the Hall of Fame jockey who suffered fatal injuries following a racing accident at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, 1946. It has been presented annually by Santa Anita since 1950.
Espinoza is currently in Dubai, where on Thursday night he was scheduled to ride California Chrome in a prep for the Dubai World Cup. Espinoza won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2014 with California Chrome, who was that year's Horse of the Year, so Espinoza has won five of the last six Triple Crown races and ridden the last two Horses of the Year.