Triple threat in gate

Horse racing: Three young jockeys are neck-and-neck to fill the void left at the top of the local standings when Edgar Prado departed.

Horse Racing

January 07, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

When Edgar Prado, Maryland's top jockey, rode off to New York last year, area racing fans wondered: Who would inherit the wins?

For three years, Prado led the nation in victories, dominated local tracks, corralled the best mounts. His departure for racier climes left a vacancy atop the jockey standings - and a giddy-up call for a successor. Who thought there would be three?

In a finish called unprecedented by Maryland horsemen, a trio of area riders ended the year among the country's top five winners. Ramon Dominguez (361 victories) placed third, Travis Dunkelberger (352) was fourth and Mark Johnston (336) fifth.

Russell Baze of California led the nation with 412 wins. Clinton Potts (Pennsylvania) took second with 369.

On their heels came the Maryland entry, a threesome that defied odds by bunching at the wire. Dominguez and Dunkelberger were neck-and-neck at the end, with Johnston a few lengths back.

No one can recall that happening before.

"Historically, this state has been a haven for good young jockeys, but having this many people near the top is really unique," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "It's not unusual for one to dominate nationally, but two or three? Not that I can remember."

Prado, weaned here, claimed top honors nationally from 1997 through 1999, when he became the first rider to win more than 400 races in three successive seasons. Before him came Kent Desormeaux, who led the country in victories in 1987-89 while riding largely on Maryland tracks. His predecessor was Chris McCarron, national champion in 1974-75 and 1980 while blossoming at ovals such as Pimlico and Laurel.

Earlier still was Hall of Famer Bill Hartack, who saddled up as a youngster in Maryland in the 1950s. Each galloped past local competition during his ascent. Runaway winners, all.

Not so last year, when the three premier jockeys riding here treated fans to what amounted to a season-long horse race.

"Maryland has always been a spawning ground for top riders, but this? This is remarkable, a feather in the state's cap," said Chick Lang, a racing consultant and onetime general manager of Pimlico. "It's also an inspiration for young riders to come here."

Dominguez, 24, and Dunkelberger, 23, began riding regularly at Maryland tracks last year. Johnston, 30, has been a journeyman for 12 seasons. All ride elsewhere, too. Dunkelberger, for instance, lives and rides in West Virginia.

The three have little in common besides success - and their size. Averaging 5 feet 7, all are taller than the typical jockey.

Dominguez is a soft-spoken, fast-rising star whose riding style and temperament are reminiscent of a younger Prado: he rode three winners on his first Maryland Million day and ended the year with the best victory percentage of all jockeys in the state (22.75 percent), earning a $5,000 bonus from the Maryland Jockey Club. A native of Venezuela, Dominguez sends home a portion of his winnings to help support three younger siblings.

Dunkelberger is a hard-riding farm boy from South Dakota whose burst-from-the-gate tactics and aggressive ploys favor smaller tracks. He likes to exercise horses at dawn, play nine holes of golf, then ride at a Maryland track before hustling off to Charles Town - sometimes by helicopter - to ride at night. That's how he won eight races one day last March; he won seven more on a single card at Timonium in August.

Johnston is a personable Kentuckian with a bent for country music and an infectious smile. Small wonder. His 292 victories on Maryland tracks last year led the state and boosted his career total to more than 2,300 wins. This, despite his constant battle with weight on a 5-9 frame.

Johnston's appearance among national leaders is linked to the fact that another horseman with state ties ranks atop the final standings for 2000. Scott Lake, a Pennsylvania trainer who muscled into Maryland and New York last summer, led the country in victories with 336, a winning ratio of 32 percent.

Johnston hitched his wagon to that trainer's star. He rides regularly for Lake, 35, who stables 50 horses here and is a finalist for racing's prestigious Eclipse Award, to be presented later this month.

Lake has built a Pygmalion-like reputation for lassoing nondescript horses and turning them into winners.

"He [Lake] has made the biggest difference for me," said Johnston, who won an Eclipse himself as the nation's top apprentice jockey in 1990. "Scott just loves his horses, trains them light and seems to do everything right."

The pair first hooked up in 1999, after a chance meeting at Delaware Park. Johnston passed the trainer in the paddock, congratulating him on his success. Lake offered the jockey a mount.

Of the first nine horses Johnston rode for him, seven won, said Lake.

"We just clicked together," the trainer said. "Mark is a smart rider, very patient, with great hands. His strength is getting horses to relax early on."

Dominguez ... Dunkelberger ... Johnston.

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