by Terry Conway
When word spread two summers ago that Ramon Dominguez was departing for six weeks to ride at Saratoga, the jockey's room at Delaware Park was all smiles.
"They were so happy that a couple of them offered to drive me up there to make sure I got there okay," recalls Dominguez with a laugh.
Dominguez owns a 14-acre farm just down the road from the Fair Hill Training Center where he relaxed with his family when he was the leading rider at Delaware Park from 2004-07. Last winter he moved his tack to New York full-time. Today, he is the hottest jock in America and has attracted a huge betting following in New York.
Bypassing the sunny racing ovals of south Florida, Dominguez soldiered on through icy, bitter blasts to win the riding title at Aqueduct last winter. Then he captured the Belmont Park title in the spring, breaking Angel Cordero Jr.'s 27-year record in the Belmont spring meet with 98 winners. On closing day of the Saratoga race meet Dominguez booted home one final winner to snag the 2009 riding title with 45 victories over defending champion Alan Garcia's 40.
"It definitely means a lot, especially now that I am committed to be in New York year round," relates Dominguez, 32. "There is something about Saratoga. The whole atmosphere, from the look of the grandstand and the track, plus the fans, is great. You don't see it anywhere else."
The 32-year old Venezuelan added another entry to his resume in early October when he notched his 300th win of the New York season. He became just the fifth rider to get to 300 wins in a year. Dominguez led North American riders with more than $14.3 million in earnings and is second in wins behind Russell Baez with 317 as of October 12th.
Trainers have his agent Steve Rush on speed dial. By the end of September Dominguez had won with a staggering 48 percent of his mounts for Mike Hushion, 44 percent for Carlos Martin, and 38 percent for Tony Dutrow. He has been a favorite rider for Dutrow over the years at Philadelphia Park and at Delaware Park since 1998.
"Ramon is a very patient and skillful rider," says Dutrow. "He is cool, calm and collected. He rides with a tremendous amount of confidence, and ultimately the horses run for him."
Gary Contessa, a perennial top New York trainer, concurs.
"No matter what kind of horse you put him on, he adapts," says Contessa. "Put him on a speed horse, he goes. Put him on a horse with a problem mouth, he is the most patient guy in the world. Put him on a quirky horse, and he'll figure out a way to get him to relax and do his thing."
Dominguez is personable, soft-spoken and level-headed, the perfect attributes for a top professional athlete. Two winters ago when Aqueduct's dark days (non-racing) arrived each week Dominguez hopped into his car and drove three hours down I-95 to his Fair Hill home to be with his wife Sharon and two young sons, Matthew and Alex.
"The reason I stayed (at Delaware Park) the past few years was the quality of life," Dominguez confides. "It's very settled, very laid-back. My oldest son Matthew is crazy about horses and my wife and I ride pleasure horses. Hey, it's nice to get on a horse with no expectations."
Sharon is the daughter of Standardbred owner and trainer Bobby Wyatt of Frederica, Del. She met the jockey at Delaware Park, where she galloped horses in the mornings for Graham Motion and other trainers, and worked as a pony rider in the afternoons.
Dominguez grew up in the countryside of Venezuela in Cagua, an hour outside Caracas. As a sideline to his day job his father operated a "Pick 6" betting machine that he toted to the local racetrack on weekends. His son tagged along.
"I wanted to be a jockey," Dominguez noted. "My parents got me into a show jumping school, hoping I would get it out of my system. Within a couple of months I was slipping over to a nearby training center. My father wasn't happy, but eventually he relented."
By age 18, Dominguez was riding full-time at La Rinconada racetrack. Through a friend he found an agent in Miami in 1995 and began riding at Hialeah the following year. He was married the day after the 2001 Belmont Stakes but delayed his honeymoon seven months to have an opportunity to win the national riding title. He got it with 431 wins and earned it again in 2003 (453). In June 2004 he notched his 2,000th career race and was named the winner of the Isaac Murphy Award presented by the National Turf Writers Association to the jockey with the highest winning percentage (28.3).
His 3,000th career win came in May 2007. A slender rider at 5-foot, six-inches and 112 pounds, Dominguez keeps his physical edge by running regularly and the last few years he's been taking a crack at indoor rock climbing. He says his favorite foods are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, but admits he couldn't live without granola.
Dominguez piloted Fabulous Strike to victory for trainer Todd Beattie and owner Walter Downey in the $250,000 Alfred Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga in August. The Pennsylvania-bred 6-year-old has won 14 times in 24 starts. He has been especially remarkable at six furlongs, winning 11 of 16 races. Unfortunately, Dominguez won't be headed to the 2009 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
"He got beat six lengths over the Pro-Ride in the Sprint last year," said his trainer Todd Beattie, referring to Fabulous Strike's fifth-place finish in the 2008 Sprint. "He gave an honest effort, but he's just not quite as good on synthetics as he is on dirt. Anywhere but Santa Anita and we'd have been there."
17th MD Million
In late September Roaring Lion gave jockey Ramon Dominguez his record 17th victory in the Maryland Million races where he dominated the $125,000 Sprint by 3 1/2 lengths. By winning his second stakes of the day, Dominguez broke a tie with Edgar Prado and Mario Pino, the winningest jockey in Maryland Million races history.
"A few horses went out with us, but once we got into a good position Roaring Lion was just within himself," Dominguez said. "The trainer had him ready for today."
In an honest assessment Dominguez says most people— including some trainers and owners— don't fully understand what it takes to be a rider.
"I don't really think you can fully understand what it takes—not only physically, but also mentally— unless you do it," he insists. "I hate to see a rider heavily criticized, because in all fairness people don't understand how many situations are out of our control."
Racing pundits have drawn comparisons to Jerry Bailey, and they compared Bailey to Eddie Arcaro. Fellow jockey Mario Pino calls Dominguez an exceptional horseman as well as a gifted jockey.
"I really admire his dedication and preparation," noted Pino who has battled him at Delaware Park and at Maryland's racetracks.
Dominguez focuses daily on pre-race handicapping that often yields a winning game plan. In the jock's room he pores over the program studying his next mount, understanding the competition, their tendencies and evaluating the track's bias.
"I've done this since I was a bug rider," Dominguez noted. "Still no matter what the plan, I'm a firm believer in listening to the horse. Once the gates open, you've got to adapt to different scenarios within seconds. When things don't work out I try and learn from my mistakes."
After the race he concisely recaps the performance with the trainer. Some of his greatest successes have been aboard Fair Hill's Graham Motion's top turf horses.
Film Maker was twice runner-up to Ouija Board in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Better Talk Now won the Breeders' Cup Turf in 2004, was runner-up in 2006, and finished fourth last October.
"He was an awkward horse to ride, but Ramon had a rapport with him from the get-go," explains Motion, who has partnered with the jockey the past eight years. "I remember this filly, Confessional, and none of my people could breeze her. Ramon figured her out right away. He's just a very natural horseman."
A ten-year old gelding who earned $4.35 million in purse money, Better Talk Now or "Blackie" was officially retired from racing on Sept. 29 after developing a fresh tear in the suspensory ligament of his left hind leg. He won ten stakes overall, five Grade-1 events and is second in all-time turf earnings only to the legendary John Henry.
"Better Talk Now, we have had a great history together," Dominguez says with a broad smile. "It goes way back. How often do you get to ride a horse so many years in a row and in so many big races, especially winning that Breeders Cup Turf. I am very grateful and thankful to him. I try not to get attached to the horses because many have such short careers. But I guess you could say that he is one of the horses who got to me."To contact horseracing writer Terry Conway, email Conway@dol.net