• Rick Capone, Sports Editor

Brookdale Farm’s Victor Espinoza wins ‘Unsung Hero’ award

Victor Espinoza, the farm manager of Brookdale Farm in Versailles, considers having the opportunity to work with Thoroughbreds on a farm in Central Kentucky a dream come true. Receiving an award for doing the job he loves is just amazing. On Friday, Oct. 7, Espinoza learned he won one of the inaugural Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards, also known as the “Unsung Hero” awards, in the Leadership – Farm category. “It’s unbelievable. I’m so proud,” said Espinoza about the award during an interview on Monday, Oct. 31, in the Brookdale Farm office. “I’m glad I can make people proud of me. But, for my family, it’s just so much pride. My kids are so proud of me, and all of my friends, all our employees, my boss and all his family, and everything. Thanks to the Seitz family. I mean, this (farm) is a beautiful place, and it makes me feel even more pride. It’s a great feeling. You cannot describe the feeling.” Born July 3, 1962, Espinoza grew up in Lagos de Moreno, a small town in Jalisco, Mexico. There, among other things, he got to work a little with horses. However, his dream was to come to the United States and work with Thoroughbreds. “You know, I had a friend in Mexico and his brother used to be in California,” said Espinoza. “I remember it was a Sunday evening when he (my friend) asked me, ‘Do you want to head north?’ “I wanted to come because, in Mexico, it’s one of the biggest dreams for people, you know, to come to the United States. It’s big. It’s like a dream land. If you’re going to make it, it’ll be in the United States.” However, he had no money to make the trip. But, that was soon resolved thanks to his brother-in-law, who lent him the money to make the trip. According to Espinoza, it was barely enough for a bus ticket and a couple of meals, but he took it, and in 1981, at the age of 19, he headed north on a 30-hour bus ride to try and make his dream come true. He wanted to work with Thoroughbreds. Once in the United States, he stayed in California for a few weeks with his friend’s brother, but jobs were scare. Then, someone he knew in Oxford, Penn., told him if he could get to Oxford, which is located in central Pennsylvania between Harrisburg and Philadelphia near the Maryland border, there were plenty of things to do there. So, off to Pennsylvania Espinoza went. “We flew overnight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia,” he said. “I think we landed around 7 o’clock in the morning. We made it to this little town, Oxford, about 9 o’clock. By 9:30 or 9:45, I was already working. I was tired, sleepy and everything. But, I said, ‘We don’t come to rest, we come to work.’” Espinoza stayed in Pennsylvania for about two years and then a friend of his brother’s who lived in Versailles told him that he had a friend in Kentucky. “I said, ‘Really. With the horses?’” His friend said yes and soon Espinoza was headed to Kentucky. “By then I had a little car; an older car, (and) I put everything in the trunk and headed to Kentucky,” said Espinoza. “I drove all day from Oxford to Versailles, and (stopped at) that little gas station on Lexington Road across from the pharmacy (Joe Johnson’s Gulf Station). “I stopped in there (because) I was kind of lost, and I asked him, ‘Where is Versailles?’ “The guy said, ‘You’re in downtown Versailles.’” I was happy to make it here. Once in Versailles, he found the Hurst Motel on Frankfort Street. He got a room and got some rest. The next morning, he called his friend, told him where he was, and his friend came and got him and showed him around the area, and he just fell in love with the place. “(Central Kentucky) is a great place to live,” he said. “Its beautiful, the farms and everything. It is just amazing. I remember when I first came to Kentucky, I was amazed just to look over the fences and see those horses. I wanted to touch them.” The next day he went looking for a job in Lexington and found an opening on a small farm. “I walked in there and asked them if they’re hiring,” he said. “The lady manager asked me if I knew anything about horses, which I knew a little bit from Mexico. But, I didn’t know nothing about Thoroughbreds. So, I said, ‘Yes, I think I know my way around Thoroughbreds (and) if I can get the job, by the afternoon, if you don’t think I can handle the horses, you don’t even have to pay me for the (day).’” He got the job and was working that afternoon. Over the next few years, Espinoza also worked at different places. He worked at the race track and then went to work at a farm with Saddlebreds. According to Espinoza, it used to be Castle Hills and was located next to where the CastlePost is now. “I worked there for about 11 months,” he said. “I learned how to clip horses, how to work with horses and show horses. I learned how to groom horses. Things you also need around Thoroughbreds. It was a nice job, but I really wanted to work with Thoroughbreds. I wanted to be around Thoroughbreds. I like racing.” His original plan was to stay with the Saddlebreds, even when a person he knew that worked at Brookdale asked him if he wanted to come work with him. At the time, Espinoza told him, “I’m happy right now where I am. But, if I ever look for a job, you’ll be the first person that I’d like to come to.” Soon, however, family life took over when his wife, Edith, gave birth to their first son in 1985 (they’ve had three children: Elias, Angelica and Antonio). However, with Saddlebreds there was a lot of travel and he decided to settle down and stay in one place. With that in mind, he asked the person if the job was still open. It was, and on Oct. 9, 1985, Espinoza began his career at Brookdale Farm. He’s been there ever since. Espinoza began work on the farm as a groom, something he enjoyed and believed he was good at after working with Saddlebreds. “The thing about it (is) if you care enough about a horse, everything is easy,” he said. “When you love your job, it’s easy. It makes it so much easier.” Around 1986 or 1987, the farm decided to add stallions to its business, and around the time the farm got its first one was about the same time the farm manager at the time was leaving. So, Fred Seitz, owner of Brookdale, asked Espinoza if he wanted to take over the stallions. “It was a big move,” said Espinoza. “Of course, I wasn’t going to turn him down. But, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it because it was a lot of responsibility. Big tough horses and everything. “The very first week I started working with them, I got bit on my chest. My chest is still kind of big, you know. And, Mr. Seitz asked me, ‘Do you still want the job?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But it hurt. I was hurting.” After that, things settled down for him and the job worked out well. One of the things Espinoza learned right away about Brookdale was that, with a small farm, you get to do lots of different types of jobs. For instance, once he was done working with the stallions, he could go mow some grass or he could go to the foaling barn and help the guys work with the mares and the babies. When he mentioned working with foals, it reminded him of a funny story that happened to him. “I was helping in the foaling barn one time bringing the babies up in the evening,” he said. “I was trying to handle this mare (in one hand) and the baby (in the other hand). And this baby was just going everywhere and everything (squirming all around). “And, I remember the broodmare manager asked me, ‘You know, look at you. You’re pretty tough. You can handle those 1,200 to 1,300 pound (horses), but you can’t handle this little baby.’” Espinoza still laughs at that because it was pretty funny. The little ones, he said, “They can make you look like a fool.” Breeding season lasts only part of the year, so along with keeping the stallions fed, bathed and groomed during the “off season,” he got to do other things around the farm as well, including a little supervision of new workers. “I was like the farm assistant,” he said. “I was able to supervise and teach the new guys what to do. I taught a lot of guys about the stallion business. A lot of good guys came out of this farm and went on to different jobs on different horse farms. “I gave a lot of chances. The same opportunities that I got from Mr. Seitz, I give to those guys. And I’m proud because a lot of those guys, … they’ve got so much good ability to work with horses. “I had a lot of good people coming through here. So, that helps a lot. Good people, willing to work hard, and proud of what we do. A lot of people take it for granted to work with horses, but some of these people actually love the horses. They feel good when we take those horses and they sell good, and then you see them running and they’re winning, these people remind me – ‘Remember, I used to take care of that horse.’ – So they’ve very proud. Very proud.” Espinoza’s hard work around the farm did not go unnoticed and about three years ago he became Brookdale’s farm manager. Then, his continued hard work earned him this year’s “Unsung Hero” award. It is an award he is happy to accept as an individual; however, he believes everyone on the farm was the winners. “The whole farm won it,” he said. “The thing when you read all (about) this, they say, you get the award, but (really) your division gets to share the award. At Brookdale, however, there are no divisions. We are all one division. The whole farm is a team.” Along with the trophy, the farm also got $5,000 for “the division” and Espinoza decided to share it with everyone. “We had a lunch on Friday (Oct. 28) here on the farm, and we had a $200 check for everyone,” he said. “I had the trophy, and everybody was taking pictures with the trophy. To me, it was the best part. Share with everybody. Make everybody feel like they belong. I would not do it any other way. … “I know it wasn’t much, but everybody got something and everybody was proud of it.” As to his future plans, Espinoza is not planning to go anywhere. For him, Brookdale is home. “I’m’ getting older, and, maybe not wiser, but you know – I feel good here,” he said with a smile. “This is a great place to work. Raising babies (foals) here on the farm is something you look forward to. Right now, you’re already seeing the babies growing and everything, and you feel like you’ve already accomplished something. But, let’s accomplish more next year. Every mare that comes into the foaling barn, and you’re able to get a good, healthy baby, it makes you feel good. Makes you proud of it. It’s like teaching a little kid the first step or two.” He also hopes that other workers at Brookdale might get recognized with one of these awards as well. "We set a good standard here for the next year (and for) the people," he said. "It’s a great thing; a great motivation. You get motivated like that, and believe me, I can tell you right now, we’ve got more guys on the farm that deserve to get nominated." Here's a list of all of this year's award winners and finalists: * Leadership-Farm award: Victor Espinoza, farm manager, Brookdale Farm. Other finalists: John Hall (Taylor Made) and Matt Koch (Shawhan Place LLC). * Leadership-Racing award: Melissa Cohen, assistant trainer to New York-based Rick Violette. Other finalists: Jimmy Barnes (who works for trainer Bob Baffert) and Laz Guerra (who works for trainer Mike Maker). * Dedication to Racing award: Jose "Vinny" Castaneda, a groom for California trainer, Farrell Jones. Other finalists: Danny Ramsey (who works or Kenny McPeek Racing) and Raul Rodriguez (who works for Art Sherman Racing). * Dedication to Breeding award: James Sebastian, part of the crew handling mares and foals or Claiborne Farm. Other finalists: Everett Charles (who works for Stone farm) and Leon Hamilton (who works for Ashview Farm). * Community Award (for outstanding contribution to the Thoroughbred Industry): Israel "Izzy" Vega, a founding member of the Race Track Chaplaincy of California.

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