Jockey Is Feeling His Oats

Jockey Mario Pino
For most of his 28-year career, Mario Pino has ridden almost exclusively at Maryland racetracks -- Laurel Park, Pimlico, Timonium, and, early on, the old Bowie Race Course. (Mark Gail - The Washington Post)

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By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

While the other great Maryland riders of the past 20 years -- Kent Desormeaux, Edgar Prado and Ramon Dominguez -- tired of being hungry fish in a small pond and moved on to fame and fortune at bigger tracks, Mario Pino stayed home and raised a family.

For most of his 28-year career, Pino has ridden almost exclusively at Maryland racetracks -- Laurel Park, Pimlico, Timonium, and, early on, the old Bowie Race Course, where he won his first race in 1979. And in that time, Pino has 5,888 trips to the winner's circle, a total surpassed by only 15 jockeys.

Pino has loved to ride since his days growing up as the son of a horse trainer and mushroom farmer in West Grove, Pa. But for the past 21 years, he has loved his wife, Christina, and family more and rarely allowed his competitive desire to take him too far from their house in Ellicott City.

The two appear to be a good match. She's a passionate whirlwind who chalks up her love for a boisterous household to being of Italian descent. He's shy and reserved but gravitates toward others who make a joyful racket. They have three daughters -- Danielle, 19, Victoria, 14, and Evana, 10 -- and Pino has been a steady presence in their lives, attending basketball and soccer games after school and joining them at the dinner table after a day at the races.

Lately, however, Pino has felt the lure of the world and, at 45, when most jockeys are nearing the end of the line, he has begun to venture beyond his back yard and find himself aboard the best horses he has ridden in his life. On Saturday, he will reach the pinnacle of his sport, becoming one of the oldest rookie jockeys in the 133-year history of the Kentucky Derby. His mount, an intriguing colt named Hard Spun, has lost only once in six career starts and could rank among the favorites at post time.

"The Kentucky Derby is the ultimate race," Pino said on a recent afternoon between mounts at Pimlico. "It's the World Series, the Super Bowl, the time of year the best 20 3-year-olds get to run. It's the one race you want to ride and win."

Yet winning the Derby is not a dream Pino has chased. Riding in Maryland, most of his victories were achieved on horses only their owners would recognize.

Pino is fast closing on retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey for 15th place on the all-time win list, but no one would confuse the two.

Bailey, one of the most lauded riders in history, won the Breeders' Cup Classic five times, the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness Stakes three times and seemingly just about every other important race in the country. Pino, until recently, claimed his best win came aboard a mare named Passeggiata in the Barbara Fritchie Handicap, a sprint race run in the dead of winter at Laurel.

When he finally, after 27 years, won his first Grade I race, the Prioress at Belmont Park last July on Wildcat Bettie B, Pino didn't even realize what he had accomplished. "To be honest, I didn't know it was a Grade I until I got to the winner's circle and they said, 'Congratulations on winning your first Grade I,' " Pino said. "I always knew I could ride anywhere. I had the ability, but I was happy; I was content here. But you can't say I can't ride if I've almost won 6,000."

Pino might never have landed on a horse like Wildcat Bettie B, let alone Hard Spun, had he not started riding at Delaware Park three years ago.

Purses at the once-sleepy country track had grown to the point of surpassing those offered in Maryland after the state voted to allow Delaware Park to install slot machines. Pino had been riding at Colonial Downs in the summers, when Maryland racing shut down, with the family renting a house near the track outside of Richmond, but many of the better trainers he knew were racing their better stock in Delaware.


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