The horses fill the starting gate; it rocks with their energy. Mario Pino draws his knees up tight and wraps some mane around his index fingers. He wants to be "with" his mount when they come rocketing out. He feels "a little nervous, a little excited." He feels "the competition." Now the gate springs open, and suddenly the "wind hits you in the face and whistles through your helmet."

In a few strides Pino is hitting 35, 40 miles an hour. He hears other sounds on the far side of that sheer wall of wind: hooves drum against the earth, a whip snaps, a rider yells at another to move over because he is bringing his horse through. "There's so much noise."

Pino now rides through that noise, looking for position up against the rail. Where he will settle will depend on "how much horse I've got underneath me. Some like to run free, others like you to take a good hold of them." He continues: "You've got to be able to relax a horse real good. You've got to rhythm the horse. Every time his head goes down you push with your hands. You drive him; it's like a piston. You stay with him If you're not with him the horse feels it, and it throws him off."

Mario Pino is 18 years old. He weighs 100 pounds. But the impression is more of a man than a boy -- a person whose vocation, not passion, is horses. i

This is Pino's first year as a racerider, but he has been around horses most of his life. His father raises them on a farm in southern Pennsylvania. "I'd get up before school and feed them," he remembers. "After school I'd brush them and excise them. You have to take care of horses. It's a lot of work. They become part of your life."

In Pino's case a big part: "I quit school in the ninth grade and started working around the track. My parents encouraged me. I liked to ride, and I wasn't getting any bigger."

Pino went to New York and galloped horses for a trainer there. After a couple of years the trainer gave him some mounts. "I rode 40 races before I rode a winner. I thought I'd never win a race." Pino is now the fourth leading apprentice jockey in the country. Only three first-year riders have ridden more winner than he.

It is dawn. Misty, grainy darkness veils the track, yielding only shape and sound. A pair of horses, out for a morning gallop, come thudding up the long white line of the rail. They grow through the half-light, steamy breath flaring from nostrils, hooves spraying dirt. A rider snaps his whip and snarls encouragement. The horses breeze on by, mrging back into the shroud of the day, becoming again part of something that rsembles a dream.

Every year in America about 2,500 smaller-than-average people try to ride into the dream. They take out licenses to be apprentice jockeys. Perhaps there is room for two or three percent to really make it. The rest will end up exercising horses, grooming them or cleaning up after them.

Pino acknowledges these lousy odds. "There's a lot of luck involved," he says.

That luck takes many forms. A trainer starts giving you good horses to ride. You don't have weight problems, so you don't have to steam or starve pounds away, sacrificing strength in the process. You are simply born with "a good set of hands." Hands to the jockey are like eyes to the artist. Through them he feels and communicates with his subject. By them he takes its energy and gives it purpose.

Pino is lucky on all of the above counts, and the knowledge of his good fortune seems to have quickened his competitive appetite. "You have to make yourself learn. Don't be cocky; people around the track don't like cocky people. Get up early in the morning, exercise horses, talk to people -- just be there." Almost by osmosis, he believes, one can become a winner. "You win a few, and you get some confidence. Then you're rolling."

And for now, Mario Pino is rolling. But on Jan. 1 he will become a journeyman jockey and thus lose the weigh allowance that apprentices enjoy. He will also lose a sympathetic audience. First-year men, he says, are expected to make mistakes. "As a journeyman, though, you're supposed to know what you're doing. They like to see you finish strong. They like to see you use your head. They don't really care what you do on the backside, but when you come through that stretch, you've got to be strong."

Be strong through the stretch, use your head: the phrases form what seems a code of honor of Pino. Any jock worth his salt, he says, "saves a lot of horse for the end." And then, sensing the right moment, he will "ask" his horse.

The answer will vary from day to day, from horse to horse. Some days when Pino makes his stretch run -- pushing hard with his hands, "really rhythming the horse" -- all he will get in return is a mount that "feels like he's running sideways. You thinks he's going to fall apart; he's just dead."

Other days, though, Pino gets what he asks for: a strong, straight, longstriding animal. "Plenty of horse." Such are the moments that Pino lives for. He can ignore the din of wind and hooves. He can ignore the aches in his back and his pumping arms -- the shocks his knees are taking. He can look around at "the competition," and this is what he'll see:

"The other jocks go to ask their horses, and they're just sitting there dead. They're into their drives and going nowhere. Then you ask yours and he goes. Oh yeah, you feel pretty good."