They're brothers of saddle

Riders stay close despite title bids

Horse Racing

October 12, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

They compete against each other daily, yet they dress in the same corner of the locker room. Either could finish the year with the most wins in the country, yet if one couldn't finish first, he would root for the other.

Ramon Dominguez and Travis Dunkelberger, 24-year-old jockeys, occupy a rare place among riders in America. They compete side by side in Maryland as they battle nationally in the race for wins by jockeys.

Dominguez, a smooth-riding native of Venezuela, ranks No. 2 in wins behind the veteran Russell Baze, who rides in Northern California. Dunkelberger, an aggressive jockey from a family of rodeo riders in South Dakota, ranks third. As of yesterday afternoon, the win standings read: Baze 322, Dominguez 319, Dunkelberger 313.

Tomorrow at Pimlico, the two Maryland riders will have their hands full in the Maryland Million, 11 races worth $1.05 million for horses sired by Maryland stallions. Dominguez, who in his first Maryland Million last year won three races, has mounts in each of this year's races.

Dunkelberger has mounts in nine, and then he'll cut out early to drive to Charles Town, W. Va. At his home track, Charles Town Races, he has mounts tomorrow night in eight races of that track's signature event, the West Virginia Breeders Classics. In other words, Dunkelberger in one day will ride in 17 stakes races.

Dunkelberger often rides double at Pimlico or Laurel Park during the day and Charles Town at night. Not be outdone, Dominguez rides seven days a week, primarily at Pimlico or Laurel Park and then, on Maryland's dark days, at Delaware Park.

Neither pays as close attention to the national standings as you might think.

"I do look at it once in a while," said Dominguez, who finished third in wins last year with 361. "But what can I do? Just keep riding my horses.

"I just take it day by day. If it happens, great. If it doesn't happen, I won't be disappointed."

Dunkelberger echoed Dominguez's sentiment about approaching the job one day at a time.

"I'll look at the [Daily Racing] Form, and if I'm on 15 horses I'll try to win four or five," Dunkelberger said. "I don't look at the standings and think I have to win so many to catch Ramon."

Dunkelberger hitched his star to Dale Capuano, the leading trainer in Maryland by wins. Capuano said Dunkelberger and Dominguez share similar traits: Aggressive out of the gate, patient during midrace, strong in the stretch.

"They're underrated, because around here they don't get the recognition they deserve," Capuano said. "They're two of the best young riders in the country."

Dominguez raced ponies through fields in Venezuela when he was 14 or 15. He spent a year at a riding school atop show horses before starting to groom and gallop thoroughbreds at 18.

He rode races at tracks in Venezuela for a year before immigrating to the United States. He rode in southern Florida, followed a trainer to Delaware Park and started riding two years ago in Maryland.

He rode his 1,000th winner Sunday at Pimlico.

"It's a dream come true," Dominguez said in the winner's circle after a presentation by the Maryland Jockey Club. "So far, I am reaching goals every day that I haven't even set."

Dunkelberger started riding calves when he was 8 or 9. He broke ponies at his family's farm and then, at 15 or 16, started galloping thoroughbreds. He broke in as a jockey in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before traveling in 1994 with a fellow rider to Charles Town.

He took off for Pennsylvania and New York, returned to Charles Town and then migrated to Maryland. Last year, he rode seven winners in one day - twice (once at Charles Town, once at Timonium).

He and Dominguez, as busy and competitive as they are, have developed a healthy rapport based on support and admiration.

"If I know my horse can outrun his, I do what I can to outrun him," Dunkelberger said. "But when I can, I root for him, and he roots for me."

Facts and figures

What: Maryland Million, 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions

When: Tomorrow. Gates open 10:30 a.m., first race 12:35 p.m.

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Purses: $1.05 million

Highlight: $200,000 Classic, post time 5:15 p.m.

TV: Ch. 54, 4-6 p.m.

Also: Bands, children's activities, jumping demonstration, trick-riding exhibition, giveaways.

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