Jockey Joe Rocco passed a milestone during the weekend, then set his sights on higher achievements.
The Maryland veteran reached 2,500 career winners in Saturday's fourth race, a number he thought he might never attain after suffering a serious injury in an accident last year.
"The last time I got hurt, they told me I might never ride again," Rocco said yesterday at Laurel Park, where he raised his win total to 2,502 aboard Coptic Princess ($11.20) in the sixth race.
"I'm lucky to be here. A blood vessel in my liver was crushed in that incident and I was out six months. So it means a lot to me to reach 2,500. But I try not to think about it and keep on going."
The Brooklyn-born Rocco, 34, has been a regular here the past five years. His career, which includes stops in New York, Florida, New Jersey and Delaware, spans 14 years.
"But if you take away all my injuries, I've probably ridden about 12 years," he said. "Considering all I've been hurt, 2,500 is a big goal I thought I would never accomplish."
Rocco is one of six finalists nationwide for the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, one of the most prestigious in thoroughbred racing.
It is presented in honor of one of the sport's greatest riders, who died the day after falling off a mount at Santa Anita and suffering a brain concussion in 1946. He was 36.
Woolf, nicknamed "The Iceman", was the regular jockey for the great Seabiscuit, whom he drove to victory over War Admiral in a match-race Pimlico Special in 1938. He won nearly every major stakes race in this country except the Kentucky Derby.
The award cites jockeys whose careers and character bring esteem to racing.
"Just to get nominated is a big thrill," said Rocco, who received the Federico Tesio Award, symbolic of similar dedication to racing, in Maryland three years ago.
The other nominees for the Woolf Award are Eddie Maple, Jean-Luc Samyn, Gary Stevens' brother Scott, Alex Solis and Ronald Ardoin.
Slow start, strong finish
Ameri Valay got away with some slow early fractions yesterday and had a lot of run remaining through the stretch to win the $50,000 Walter Haight Handicap by 3 1/4 lengths over Richie The Coach.
The outcome capped a big weekend for trainer King Leatherbury, who saddled Owned By Us, winner of the $100,000 Northern Dancer Stakes Saturday.
"I wish we had a stakes race every day," Leatherbury said in the winner's circle.
Ameri Valay took immediate command under Alberto Delgado and loped along to the first two posts unchallenged in 24 3/5 and 48 4/5.
When they turned for home in the 1 1/8 -mile event, Ameri Valay was ready, finishing in a solid 1:48 4/5.
"I tried to ease him back some, but Richie The Coach didn't want the lead. So we just relaxed and we had plenty left," said Delgado.
A graded-stakes winner, Ameri Valay has won 13 of 52 lifetime starts and more than $545,000.
Jockey Allen Stacy scored a triple yesterday with Short Man in the second, first-time starter Inductive in the fifth and Ricky P. in the seventh. . . . Laurel will offer a special Breeders' Cup seminar Saturday at 10 a.m. featuring handicapper Clem Florio. The seminar will be held on the first floor of the clubhouse. . . . Warning Glance, trained by Charlie Hadry, heads the list of probable starters for the $100,000 Laurel Turf Cup, the Breeders' Cup day live feature.