Big wheels turning for trainer

Horse racing: Tony Dutrow has quickly made a mark among his peers. As for Maryland jockeys, however, no one has filled the vacuum created by Edgar Prado's exit.

January 12, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

When Edgar Prado left Maryland racetracks in July for the greener pastures of New York, the scramble began to replace him as this state's premier jockey.

Despite an upswing in victories by veterans Mario Pino and Mark Johnston and occasional flashy efforts by such Maryland upstarts as Travis Dunkelberger and Joe Rocco Jr., no jockey has emerged as the state's next riding star.

In the trainer ranks, however, one star has risen.

Since taking over for his late father, Richard Dutrow, in February, Tony Dutrow has achieved phenomenal success, becoming one of the nation's most productive trainers based on percentage of wins and of horses finishing first, second or third.

The sport's official record keeper does not rank trainers nationally on that basis, instead listing them by total earnings and the number of races won. By those measures, Dutrow was 80th in earnings and 73rd in wins, according to Equibase.

At Pimlico and Laurel Park, Dutrow led trainers in win percentage (31.6) with 55 wins in 174 starts. At all tracks in 1999, Dutrow saddled 224 starters for 68 wins, 46 seconds and 31 thirds. That's a win percentage of 30.4 and an in-the-money percentage of 64.7.

"That's fantastic," Dutrow said this week when informed of the achievement. "I obviously had a nice bunch of horses. But I also have to credit the help I got in the barn and the support I got from owners who let me do what I think best."

Dutrow said he has even better horses this year, and in six races at Laurel Park they have proved him correct. His starters have finished no worse than third: three wins, two seconds and one third.

"I can't help but look forward to 2000," Dutrow said.

For having the best win percentage, he will receive a check for $5,000 Saturday from the Maryland Jockey Club in the winner's circle at Laurel Park. A. Ferris Allen III, the trainer who saddled the most races at Pimlico and Laurel Park, will get a trophy.

At the same time, Pino will receive a trophy for riding the most winners at the state's major thoroughbred tracks, and a representative of Prado will accept a $5,000 check from the jockey club for winning 26 percent of his local races.

Pino, 38, has ridden in Maryland since he was 17. He said that when Prado, the nation's winningest jockey, began riding this summer at Saratoga, jockeys starting out and jockeys riding elsewhere ventured to Maryland to pick up the spoils.

Now, on any given day, as many as 40 riders might be holed up inside the jockeys' room at Laurel Park, most riding only one or two horses that day.

"All the jocks can ride a little bit," Pino said, "but most of them aren't going to get shots."

Dunkelberger, 22, was poised to pick up many Prado mounts when he suffered two fractured vertebrae in his neck July 14 in a spill at Laurel Park. He returned to riding last month, but by then many of the trainers who had relied on him as Prado's backup had assigned horses to other riders.

A native of South Dakota, Dunkelberger rides in Maryland most days and at Charles Town in West Virginia three nights a week. He has been Charles Town's leading rider the past four years.

Niki Goodwin, another young jockey who is making a mark, won 95 races last year at Pimlico and Laurel Park. He was fifth behind Pino, Prado, Johnston, 29, and wily veteran Rick Wilson, 46, who rides part-time here.

Goodwin, 24, began racing ponies at 14 in fairs in his native Minnesota. He has been riding in Maryland since 1995. Despite four year' service here, he still has trouble gaining mounts.

"Now, you've got riders here just for the winter," Goodwin said. "And you've got small fields. I think you're going to continue seeing riders come and go."

One winter visitor making a favorable impression is Ramon Dominguez, a 23-year-old native of Venezuela. He rides mainly at Delaware Park, which ceased racing for the winter, but reopens in April.

Riders such as Dominguez have secured mounts that otherwise would go to the full-time Maryland riders. That makes the competition among jockeys here perhaps as lively as any in the country.

"I don't care what anybody says," said Johnston, a 10-year veteran of the state's tracks. "For a jockey, Maryland is a pretty tough place."

Even Rocco Jr., the 17-year-old apprentice tabbed by several riders as a potential standout, is considering moving to New York. He's not riding as many horses here as he'd like.

"I'd like to get that success someday," Rocco said. "But horse racing is all about who gets the breaks."

Rocco, who grew up around the track in a family of trainers and jockeys, began riding professionally last February at Tampa Bay Downs. "It's fun," he said. "I'd do it even if they didn't pay me."

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