Coming Up: Roses?

Still without a Kentucky Derby mount, Mario Pino could have his best shot yet

February 09, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

Jockey Mario Pino was sitting back on the couch in the office of the Laurel Park clerk of scales on a recent afternoon, and, quite uncharacteristically, he couldn't stop talking.

"I've never heard Mario talk so much," said jockey Jeremy Rose, who was in the room during Pino's conversation with a reporter.

"Once you get him going, he likes to talk about horses," said scale clerk Adam Campola.

These days, Pino - who has been based in Maryland for most of his career - has a lot to talk about.

He has 5,861 victories and is within 33 wins of passing Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey for 15th on the all-time wins list. And he has the mount on a horse named Hard Spun, who could be Pino's ticket to his first Kentucky Derby in his 27-year career.

Hard Spun is from the last full crop of offspring of the late, great Danzig out of the Turkman mare Turkish Tryst, which gives him speed on the sire side and distance from his dame. People are already talking about the colt, who has been virtually unchallenged while going 4-for-4. As the Derby prep season begins this weekend, his next race likely will come Feb. 19 in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

"After his first race, people had a lot to say about him," Pino said, recalling the 8 1/2 -length victory at Delaware Park on Oct. 22. "Then, in his second race [Nov. 14 at Delaware Park], breaking bad from the [No. 1 post position] on a sloppy track, he won by six lengths, but people didn't think he looked as good. But he was young, and he had to overcome a lot. Then came his third race, and he ran the whole way like this."

With that, Pino holds up two fingers in what looks like a victory sign, as he demonstrates how Hard Spun kept his ears pricked on a windy December day in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Philadelphia Park. With Pino looking through those ears and keeping the horse's mind on his business, Hard Spun rolled to an eight-length win.

"And in his last race, he won like that again, very impressive," Pino said, referring to the Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in Kentucky on Jan. 13. "He was still running away from them when we crossed the wire, and I took him on to the second finish line, a 16th of a mile further on. By the time we stopped, the other horses had turned around and were headed back to the barn."

Pino was leaning forward now. His eyes had become dreamy with thoughts of the bay-colored colt.

"I'm looking forward to his next race," Pino said. "It's awesome to ride a horse like this. ... I'm excited, but I know there is still a long road from here."

Pino experienced some twists in that road in 2006.

A year ago, Pino had the ride on Sweetnorthernsaint, the horse owned by Baltimoreans Ted Theos and Joe Balsamo. And The Saint won the Grade II Illinois Derby, became the betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby and placed second in the Preakness.

But Pino wasn't riding him, because his doctor insisted he had to have a hernia operation.

"When I was riding The Saint, I wanted to wait to have the operation, but the doctor said I couldn't wait," said Pino, 45.

But Pino shrugged. Things happen in horse racing.

He missed that ride, but now here is another opportunity.

"It feels like God has taken a hand in this, giving me the opportunity to ride Hard Spun the year after what happened with Sweetnorthernsaint," Pino said.

And Pino, surprised he could be this lucky two years running, said Hard Spun is the best horse he has ever ridden.

"Sweetnorthernsaint was such a nice horse, but this one - I've never been on a horse like this," Pino said. "I've never had an opportunity to ride a horse this good. He has class and talent. He finished so easy the first time I rode him, I knew he was special. He felt, it felt like I was riding on air.

"He galloped all the way to the half-mile pole on the backstretch, and I took a deep breath and said, `This horse could beat any horse.'"

And Larry Jones, who trains Hard Spun for owner Rick Porter and Fox Hill Farms, left little doubt who has the ride should Hard Spun reach the Derby.

"I know other riders are going to try to get the mount," Jones said. "But the understanding we all [Jones, Pino and Porter] have is ... if we're all still alive and going, we're going there together."

Jones, 50, a trainer since 1982, first hooked up with Pino in Delaware, just after the jockey returned to riding after his hernia operation last May.

"If you watch simulcasting at all, you know Mario Pino," Jones said. "He's won more than 5,800 races. He's one of the leading active riders in the game. And, oh my goodness, when you can get a guy like that, it helps your stable. It's like landing Shaquille O'Neal. If you can land him, you've got to go with him. You get his caliber on decent horses, you get a whole lot stronger."

It didn't bother Jones that Pino hadn't recorded his first Grade I win until coming to his stable, a win he got last year on Jones' Wildcat Bettie B in the Prioress Stakes at Belmont Park in July.

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