OCEANPORT, N.J. -- Hard Spun and his jockey Mario Pino are a perfect match.
According to his jockey, the horse - running in tomorrow's Breeders' Cup Classic - does not get the respect he deserves. According to Hard Spun's trainer, the jockey does not get the recognition he deserves.
"People keep saying I'm using a little-known jockey," said trainer Larry Jones, puzzlement showing in his face. "Mario's [four] wins from 6,000. He's one of the top 15 riders in the history of the game. He's one of the most experienced riders there is. He's the second-winningest on the active list.
"And Hard Spun, he should be Horse of the Year if he wins this race. He's the only horse to have finished ahead of Curlin twice. We're even with Any Given Saturday, and Street Sense is just one up on us and if we win here, we'll be even. If the honor is going to go to a 3-year-old, why not Hard Spun?
"He's made every dance this year starting in January. He's not just a two-month wonder."
For Hard Spun and Pino, it has been a year-long saga.
Hard Spun began his 2-year-old career just as Pino, who lives in Ellicott City, was beginning to get close enough to 6,000 victories to believe it could be possible. And as he rode the Danzig colt to four straight wins in his developing career, he began to believe that not only would Hard Spun help him toward the 6,000-win mark, but also that he could be the horse that carried Pino to his first Kentucky Derby ride.
What seemed a dream came true in May. Hard Spun and Pino nearly won the Derby, beaten by 2 1/4 lengths by Street Sense, who had a perfect rail trip that produced a dynamic stretch run.
On Derby day, Hard Spun went off at 10-1. Five months later, he is 8-1 in the morning line, making him fifth choice in a nine-horse Classic field.
"I know the other eight horses in the race are all great horses," said Pino, who will ride at Delaware Park on Sunday and hopes to get his 6,000th victory at Laurel Park on Wednesday. "But Hard Spun deserves every bit as much respect. He's a very talented horse.
"In our last race [the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway], I know it was on Polytrack, but Street Sense had the whole race to beat me and he couldn't get past us. Hard Spun is coming in here ready, and I'm excited and confident. I love him."
Pino, who has never ridden a horse in a Breeders' Cup race, said this Classic field is the best field he has seen in any race in his 29-year career.
And he's in it - which no one would have bet on past June. Pino's ride on Hard Spun ended shortly after he finished third in the Preakness, when post-race talk about Pino's ride raised doubts in owner Richard Porter's mind. Pino was replaced by Garrett Gomez in the Belmont Stakes.
The result was the worst race of Hard Spun's career, a fourth-place finish, 11 lengths behind third-place Tiago.
Jones' voice still raises in pitch when he talks about the Belmont.
"Anyone who knows horse racing knows that when you run the fastest five or six furlongs in Preakness history three weeks earlier, you sure don't want to be running the first quarter of the Belmont not on the lead," he said. "It was completely out of our game plan, and for the life of me, I don't know why we wanted to give up ground in the first turn."
Asked whether he had regrets about making the jockey change, Jones said: "Before the Belmont, there were so many opinions on our jockey choice, on our jockey who had ridden our horse from his very first race. After that, it closed the debate. ... I wish we'd had Mario [in the Belmont], but it wasn't my decision to take him off."
Reunited with Pino, Hard Spun ran a hard race in the Grade I Haskell here at Monmouth Park, losing to Any Given Saturday but beating Curlin.
Since then, the pair is undefeated, winning the Grade I Kings Bishop and the Grade II Kentucky Cup Classic.
Tomorrow will be their last race together. Hard Spun, Street Sense and Any Given Saturday are being retired to stud at the end of the day to Darley at Jonabell in Lexington, Ky.
"My heart kind of drops at the thought of that," Pino said. "He's by far the best horse I've ever ridden. You never forget a horse like this."
BREEDERS' CUP ENTRIES, PG 4E
Time, TV: 4 p.m., ESPN2
Races (3): Dirt Mile, Filly & Mare Sprint, Juvenile Turf
Time, TV: Noon, ESPN
Races (8): Classic; Turf; Distaff; Mile; Sprint; Filly & Mare Turf; Juvenile; Juvenile Fillies