At long last, Pino is back in Preakness saddle again

May 17, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

USUALLY on Preakness Day, Maryland-bred jockey Mario Pino rides in the other races before taking a seat and watching the featured race of the day. But after being a spectator the past 21 years, Pino is back in the Preakness aboard Menacing Dennis.

The chance of Menacing Dennis' winning tomorrow is a long shot, about the same as the Orioles winning the World Series this year or the Ravens a Super Bowl in the coming season. But Pino is optimistic, and a lot of local racing officials are just as happy for him.

This is an opportunity for one of Maryland's best jockeys over the past 20 years. He is the consummate pro and gentleman. There is no other way to describe Pino, 40, who has been nationally ranked in the top 10 the past three years and among Maryland's top five every year since 1979.

"We were looking for a top rider and having difficulty getting one from California," said Jeff Bonde, Menacing Dennis' trainer. "So we looked into this fellow because he knows the track and he's the king here. We thought maybe it would be an edge for us."

Bonde has the right local master.

Most of Pino's 30,339 career starts and 4,782 victories have occurred on Maryland tracks. Just Saturday, he tied his career high for victories in a day with six at Pimlico Race Course. But his local success may have cost him big-time opportunities. Most successful Maryland jockeys leave for bigger races and better horses in other states such as Florida, New York or Kentucky, like Kent Desormeaux, Chris McCarron and Edgar Prado.

Pino has stayed in Maryland.

And no, he doesn't need his head examined, thank you.

"I kind of got started here [Maryland] and have made a good living," said Pino, a native of West Grove, Pa., and father of three daughters. "Maryland is good racing year-round, so it's good for your family life."

But it had to be tough not participating in all the Kentucky Derbies, Preaknesses and Belmonts. So Pino had to feel a little urge to move, right?

"Usually, those horses come from out of town. Very seldom did they come from this area," said Pino, who lives in Ellicott City. "I never got the opportunity or a horse to go to that level. That doesn't mean I didn't think about it. Oh, I've had that temptation to move. I've always had that little feeling about riding a horse with a real shot. But I didn't worry about it, because I've always had a good career, and my family has been very comfortable with Maryland's relaxed racing atmosphere."

Pino laughs about finally being in the Preakness again. He never even thought he would win 3,000 races, much less close in on 5,000, and slightly more than $71,170,000 in prize money.

Not bad for a grinder who gets better with age. Pino has won 854 races during the past three years, the best stretch in his 23-year career. He is 40 going on 30. The metabolism hasn't slowed down. A disciplined diet kept his weight down as a high school wrestler in Delaware, and the same approach keeps him jockey-fit.

"I think the horses are allowed 126 pounds on them, and I usually weigh about 112, which is the perfect weight for everyday riding," Pino said. "Actually, I weighed more in high school [114 pounds] than I do now. Back then, I had to reduce to 107 or 108 pounds. That training has helped my conditioning as a jockey. I eat toast every morning, and that's about it until dinner. I always eat a nice dinner, but I got this thing down to a science now. I know what I weigh before I get on the scale. If you stay in shape and keep your mind going, you have no problems.

"I just consider myself an everyday guy," he added. "I still enjoy riding nine or 10 races a day. I might get tired, but if you win one or two, you get that energy back."

Pino has won often, but has had only one other shot at the Preakness. When he was 19, he rode Escambia Bay to a seventh-place finish in 1981. With Escambia Bay, Pino didn't know he was going to ride the horse until three days before the race.

With Menacing Dennis, Pino might not climb into the saddle for the first time until the day of the race. He is expected to meet with Bonde today, then look at film of Menacing Dennis in the horse's only four races.

"I really don't know the horse, I really don't know the trainer," Pino said. "They needed a rider, and it was a little late to be picking up a mount. I guess being the leading rider here, that exposure helped me get the mount. The horse is going to have to step up a big level to catch up with these other horses. But they think highly of the horse, and we're all giving it a shot."

Pino has tons of experience. Besides his own career, his brother Michael is a Delaware-based trainer. Fellow Maryland-based jockeys Alberto Delgado and Mark Rosenthal are brothers-in-law, and trainer Luigi Gino is his father-in-law.

"I live this life, I enjoy this life," Pino said. "Who knows? Maybe we can win this. I've been in races where a horse won a race that I didn't think they would win. A horse still has to go around in a circle. Anything can happen."

Pino has proved that. He's back in the Preakness after a 21-year absence.

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