Pino banking on home-track advantage

After riding `thousands of races' at Pimlico, jockey expects to have same edge Borel had in Derby


May 18, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Shortly after the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones told Street Sense trainer Carl Nafzger to beware.

They had just finished racing at Churchill Downs, where Street Sense's jockey, Calvin Borel, excels. But now, Jones warned, the competition was heading to Maryland, where his jockey, Mario Pino, knows Pimlico Race Course as if it were laid out in his own backyard.

"This is Pino country," Jones said yesterday, during the annual Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico. "Mario has won more races than anyone else in Maryland. If there are any land mines, he knows where they are."

Tomorrow, Pino will ride Hard Spun in the 132nd Preakness, and his experience at Pimlico could be the deciding factor in the nine-horse race.

Pino, who has passed Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey on the all-time win list with 5,899 victories, lives in Ellicott City. He said riding at Pimlico is like having the home-court advantage in basketball.

"I've ridden here for 28 years," Pino said. "All the fans know me. They bet on me every day. I know every little thing about the racetrack. I know where all the little spots are to watch. I know how to go into the turns, which are a little tight, especially Turn 1.

"I'm comfortable."

At Churchill, Borel had the edge. Pino said when he watched a tape of the Derby, he was amazed by what he saw.

"To get through all those horses, it was a gift from God," Pino said of Borel's winning ride from 19th place along the rail. "How could he get through? If anyone steps in front of him, we win.

"I can't complain. My horse ran well. But Calvin had raced thousands of times on that rail. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have been so confident.

"Now, I think I have the edge. I've ridden thousands of races here. On this track, I know when to make a move and when not to. I'm not going to be surprised by anything in the first or second turn. When the gate opens, everything you do is by instinct. When a decision has to be made, I'm going to be confident."

This is Pino's third Preakness horse - he finished seventh in 1981 on Escambia Bay and 10th in 2002 on Menacing Dennis - but this will be his first horse with a real chance of winning.

Street Sense is the morning-line favorite at 7-5, and Hard Spun is second at 5-2. Both will be watching out for third choice Curlin (7-2). Circular Quay, King of the Roxy and Xchanger might also have a say. The long shots in the field are Flying First Class, who is expected to be the pace-setter, C P West and Mint Slewlep.

Yesterday, Jones said he is enjoying Preakness week because there are no issues with Hard Spun.

"There's not a lot to worry about with my horse," he said. "I'd feel different if I was worrying about [various training procedures]. My horse is a happy horse."

Jones said he felt the same way in Kentucky, where everything he did while training his horse was viewed through a magnifying glass. He heard he couldn't bring a horse to the Derby off a six-week rest. He heard he didn't work Hard Spun fast enough at Keeneland leading up to race week. He heard he worked him too fast at Churchill Downs the Monday before the race.

After all the doubters had their say, the horse ran a wonderful race, beaten only by Street Sense's perfect inside trip.

"Since the Derby, there has been no criticism," Jones said. "Now, I'm second-guessing myself."

Jones, an affable man who usually wears a large white cowboy hat, said most criticism rolls off his back. But during Derby week, the remarks got to him.

"Everybody immediately attacked the fast work," Jones said of Hard Spun's 57 3/5 seconds over five furlongs. "People said it was the most ridiculous work they'd ever seen. They said if they had been on Hard Spun's bandwagon, they were off it now.

"But they never came back to the barn to see how the horse came out of the work. All they did was prove to me that they could read a stopwatch but know nothing about horses. The problem was the owner hears that stuff and starts calling and asking, `Why'd you do that?'"

Jones said he did get support from a couple of racing greats.

"Once in a while, you've got a trainer like [D. Wayne] Lukas or Mr. Nafzger with such fine, long reputations no one questions it. But that's not my case," he said. "Thank goodness, I bumped into [Hall of Fame trainer] LeRoy Jolley, and [retired top jockey] Eddie Delahoussaye called, and both said, `Don't worry.' That helped.

"And the horse helped. As soon as I saw him, he was saying, `I'm good.'"

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