ONLY 31 JOCKEYS have won 4,000 or more races in their careers, and when Mario Pino reached that mark two weeks ago at Pimlico, his fans gave him a trophy, his colleagues gave him high-fives and handshakes, and the horse gave him dirt. Report On Don spooked after crossing the finish line in the eighth race at Pimlico on April 29. The horse darted toward a fence beyond the clubhouse on the outer edge of the track, as if he intended to hurdle it, then slammed into it. Pino fell to the dirt.
Was he thrown from the horse or, sensing trouble, did he try to jump?
"A combination of both," Pino says, laughing yesterday at the irony of reaching a major career milestone in one instant and taking a fall in the next. Still, it was a big day for Pino, who's been racing in Maryland for 20 years. He's up past 26,000 mounts and counting.
He had another five yesterday.
He'll have nine today.
He'll have five tomorrow.
I mention Mario Pino today because he's an impressive guy, but you're not apt to hear much about him when more celebrated jockeys -- Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Chris Antley -- step into the paddock tomorrow for the nationally televised running of the 124th Preakness. Pino will not ride in that race.
Not that he sits around thinking about that. (He only thought about it because I asked him to.)
At 37, he's happy to have had a long, Maryland-based career. He's been in plenty of stakes races over the years, won enough money. He figures that in about seven years he could retire comfortably and put his three daughters through college. Pino is one of those solid, consistent, show-up-every-day riders who has the respect of his peers, trainers, horse owners and racing fans.
He's been one of the most successful jockeys in Maryland over the past two decades. Last year, the horses he rode earned $3.3 million, putting Pino behind only Mark Johnston and the incredible Edgar "One Thousand Wins In Two Seasons" Prado. Going into 1999, horses under Pino had earned more than $53 million. This season, he's third in earnings among Pimlico jockeys.
There's a Cal Ripken aspect to this guy -- durable and professional and, like Prado, a full-time student of his sport. He stays in shape, around 111 pounds, and keeps his mind on the horses he'll be riding in future races. "I watch the races all the time," he says before yesterday's first post. "I read the Racing Form for past performances; most horses run true to form. And then, every day is different. Every day the track's a little different. The track has a bias. You can tell a lot from the first race or two. I watch the first race and if a horse closes fast to win, you know that could be the bias for that day -- closing fast. Or if the start is fast, whatever it is. You watch for that, too."
I ask about the horse he'll be riding in the first race -- Gallant Hart, sired by Aloma's Ruler, owned by Three Of A Kind Stable, trained by his brother, Michael Pino.
"I know that horse, I've been on him before," Pino says. "He has drive."
He means Gallant Hart has the competitive heart a jockey can feel when he's taking the final turn.
"Some horses have it, some don't," Pino says. "You'll see a horse, in the morning exercising, who looks just great, but they get out there, in a race, and I don't know what happens. They're just not competitive, they just don't have that drive. ... When they throw me up on a horse in the paddock, I can sense in just a few minutes what's going on with a horse. You can tell things from whether they like a strong hold or a light hold, or maybe they're a little sulky going out there."
Understanding what all that means and translating it into action on the reins comes from experience, and Pino has gobs of it. He's been around horses since he was a child in Pennsylvania, rode his first race when he was 16, logged his maiden victory in 1979 at Bowie.
"You do the best you can with each horse -- whatever's best for his personality -- and try to put him in position to win."
In the paddock for yesterday's first race, Pino wore silks of beige diamonds on a wine-colored field, with wine sleeves. His helmet was beige. Gallant Hart appeared calm. With his right hand, Michael Pino gave his brother a lift to the saddle.
At that moment, Mario Pino looked more serious than he had just 30 minutes earlier on the Pimlico jockey's porch. He looked older, too.
The jockeys are colleagues. They share a locker room. They're bonded along thoroughbred racing's dangerous edge. ("I respect all of these guys," Pino says.) But they're competitive, too. "Sometimes that kind of burns you out," he says. "But you can't let it. You can't go out there sleeping."