Two years in the saddle - that's all the 15-year-old wanted when he set foot on the race course. A few turns round the track to fulfill his dream, before he outgrew his britches.
"That would have made me happy," says Mario Pino.
But the jockey lingered. He started winning, stopped growing, kept going. On he rode, steadily, unobtrusively, flying under the radar.
Pino's horses responded; the victories mounted. As of today, as Pimlico opened its fall meet, he had 4,991.
Surprised? Join the crowd. If anyone can sneak up on 5,000 wins, it's Pino.
"I'm impressed," says trainer Tony Dutrow, a colleague for 22 years. "That's quite a feat for someone you never know is around."
Long eclipsed by better-known or more colorful jockeys, Pino has only recently moved center stage. A mainstay on the state circuit for parts of four decades, he is poised to join a select crowd. Only 17 jockeys have won more races, including greats Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day and Chris McCarron. Already this year, Pino passed fabled Eddie Arcaro (4,779 victories). The all-time leader is Laffit Pincay Jr. (9,410), still riding at age 55.
Pino turns 41 on Sunday, with no plans to retire. He's enjoying his best year ever: His 213 wins rank fifth in the nation behind leader Russell A. Baze (269).
"Shoot, the guy could go another 10 years, easy," says jockey Mark Johnston, his rival of 13 years. "Mario is riding as good as ever. He minds his own business and takes care of himself. I've never seen him eat more than a Snickers bar all day."
Watch Pino's demeanor after losing a race, says Johnston: "He doesn't get bent out of shape. A lot of jocks get mad, overadjust and go out and lose two in a row. Mario stays balanced.
"He's the coolest guy I know. He's so cool, there are no stories about him."
Except this one: In 1979, in a race at Delaware Park, an apprentice who'd taken the early lead found himself being passed in mid-race as if standing still. Thundering by on a charcoal gray colt, Shoemaker nodded toward Pino and chirped, "How ya doin', jock?" Then Spectacular Bid was gone.
"I watched him in the distance, getting smaller and smaller," Pino recalls. "He won by 20 lengths."
Pino shrugged that one off, too. Expressive, he isn't.
"When he comes home [at night], I can't tell if he won five races or lost 10 by a nose," says his wife, Cristina.
Married 17 years, the Pinos reside in Ellicott City with their three daughters in a spacious new five-bedroom colonial, paid for by years of yeomanlike work at the track. How consistent? With more than 4,000 victories in Maryland, Pino has recorded the most. Yet he has won only five meet titles, three at Laurel (in 1979, 1991 and 1999) and two at Pimlico (in 1980 and 2002).
He's a plugger, and knows it.
"I'm like an old shoe you can always go back to and put to good use," says Pino, relaxing at home on a rare day off. The 5-foot-5 1/2 jockey is finishing breakfast - one-half of an apple. It's the curse of holding firm at 112 pounds. "His stomach does growl, but not loudly," Cristina says. "Mario is a private person."
At his side are the family pets. Diva, a 90-pound Doberman, rests her head on Pino's arm. Star, a 2 1/2 -pound toy Yorkshire terrier, is stretched out ... on his foot.
"Animals respond to me," he says. "I don't want to sound goofy, but they relax for me. Horses. Dogs. Pigs."
Growing up with pets
One of four children in an Italian-Irish family, Pino grew up on a farm in West Grove, Pa., near Philadelphia. Early on, he had a knack for livestock, especially horses. At 3, he'd scramble atop his grandparents' sofa, straddle the back and ride it, using an old belt for reins. By 6, he had his own Shetland pony, as did his two brothers.
"Other kids rode their bikes around town. I had `Thunder,' " he says. "We'd ride down the road to the general store, tie our ponies to a tree, fill our pockets with candy and ride home." There, in the open fields, the Pino boys sped off bareback, galloping for a half-mile or more. Mario always won. "When they complained I had the fastest one, we'd switch ponies," he says. "I'd win again."
He was honing his skills even then. "You adjust to your horses' personalities, to give them confidence they can run," he says. "I don't fight or whip horses, I finesse them with mind and hands."
Several years ago, while watching the movie The Horse Whisperer, Cristina Pino nudged her husband. Is it true, she asked, that someone could really peer into horses' souls and soothe them? He nodded.
Pino comes close, Maryland trainers say.
The feel for horses
"He knows instinctively how a horse feels under him," says Grover "Bud" Delp, a member of Thoroughbred Racing's Hall of Fame. "Whether he's leading a race or 10 lengths back, he knows how to let a horse `settle.' "
"Mario is an absolute master at calming horses," says Ferris Allen of his favorite rider. "He's almost mousy quiet, and he seems to come and go like a phantom. But his hands are second to none. Horses who won't relax for anyone, do for him."