Pino's day at races

His grueling shift in saddle brings satisfaction - if not biggest win

Preakness Stakes

May 20, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

For 29 years, jockey Mario Pino has quietly and consistently fulfilled his childhood dream of winning horse races. Never flashy, never particularly interested in attention, Pino might be the least famous jockey in the 5,000-win club, and barring injury, he'll almost certainly be the least famous jockey in the 6,000-win club in the near future.

That almost changed, however, during this year's Kentucky Derby. Pino, who lives with his wife and three daughters in Ellicott City, had Hard Spun in the lead coming around the final turn before Street Sense passed him on the backstretch, forcing him to settle for second place, a strong effort in what was his first Derby.

Despite a hectic six-race schedule, Pino agreed to let a Sun reporter shadow him throughout Preakness Day, giving us a chance to experience the life of a veteran jockey.

9:21 a.m.: The sun has just begun to wiggle out from behind the clouds when a truck, a charcoal-gray Lincoln Navigator, glides into the parking lot. Two valets, both wearing large aviator sunglasses and even larger grins, hustle to open the doors. Billy Castle, Pino's fast-talking, sharply dressed agent, opens the driver's side door and immediately begins shaking hands.

"I'll tell you right now what this day is going to be about," Castle quips as the two men are escorted inside. "Suffering, baby! Suf-fer-ing!" As Pino makes his way through the grandstands in the direction of the jockeys' room, he can't walk more than 20 feet without someone rushing forward to shake his hand.

"This is a real treat, Mario! A real treat!" says a man as he pumps Pino's hand. "You're going to be great today!"

9:36 a.m.: In the jockeys' room, riders are chattering in Spanish and nibbling on bananas. Pino, 45, tilts his head back and squirts Visine into his eyes. He's running in six races today, so it's going to be a grind, a struggle to stay focused.

The Preakness is eight hours away. Pino's first race, though, is in less than an hour.

He hangs his suit on a thick brass hanger and rubs his hands together. Inside his locker, there are pictures of his wife, Christina, and his three daughters: Danielle (19), Victoria (14) and Evana (11). Danielle just finished her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, and Victoria is a point guard on the Centennial High girls basketball team. When he's not racing, Pino and Evana wage two-on-one basketball grudge matches against Victoria in the Pino family driveway.

"I used to be able to beat her, but she's grown up, and now she can put the moves on me," says Pino, who is 5 feet 5. "I had to get my youngest to help me just to make it fair. But it's fun."

"P-Man!" barks one of the valets, the workers who keep the clubhouse organized and help the jockeys dress. "Can I get you to sign some programs?"

Pino nods, smiles, and scribbles his name, an act he will repeat hundreds of times before the day is up.

He changes into his white racing pants, and stretches in silence. He slips into a blue pair of flip-flops, which have the word "Victory" stamped just above his toes.

Adam Campola, clerk of the scales and the man who makes certain everything runs on time inside the jockeys' room, throws a few fake punches at Pino.

"How did you sleep last night?" Campola says.

"OK," Pino says.

"I slept terrible. I was so worried about you!" Campola shouts, as the two exchange a hug.

10:30 a.m.: Riding a chestnut brown horse named Cherokee Spirit, Pino is favored in the first race, and at the halfway point, he's leading the field. But in the final turn, Cherokee Spirit runs out of gas, and Pino finishes fourth. His face is covered with mud as he makes his way back to the jockeys' room.

He has less than five minutes before he needs to head down to the paddock again and be ready for his second race. It's hardly enough time to sponge the grime off his face, grab a sip of water and change his boots and silks.

"Come on, Pino, time to go!" Campola shouts. "And bring [Ramon] Dominguez with you!"

Pino quickly nibbles on a banana. His breakfast this morning consisted of half a bagel. That's all he'll eat until dinner.

10:50 a.m.: On the back of Colonial Silver, a gray horse expected to make a late charge, Pino gets lodged in traffic. He finishes fourth.

"The track is good, but I've finished with two fourths," Pino says. "The horses were trying, but they just got outrun. They weren't quite good enough."

When he was younger, two mediocre races might have bothered Pino, but he says he's learned to let it go.

Soon, the loudspeaker in the jockeys' room crackles, bringing him to his feet. "Mario Pino, up front, please! Phone call!"

Campola hands him the receiver. It's Rick Wilson, a former jockey and good friend of Pino's. Wilson was badly injured during a race three years ago and hasn't run since. He wants to wish Pino luck.

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