Ramon Dominguez has gone to post thousands of times, but settling his horse in the starting gate for Preakness is especially exhilarating and requires all of his concentration.
"The people are going crazy and it gets you in the mood," he said. "But then you have to zoom out. You really don't hear anything. You have to think about getting ready about what's to come. If the horse is ready to break, you are so focused. But the only time you realize that is when a horse throws a fit and you have to wait and reset. You feel your heart beating so hard. You feel the adrenaline. Then you hear the crowd. But when you and your horse are set, it's like you're in a trance."
When Dominguez started his riding career here in Maryland in 2000, he was 23, a young man just four years removed from his home in Caracas, Venezuela. He came to Maryland with dreams, many of which eventually came true.
"Maryland is really the place where I got the most exposure and had a lot of success," said the veteran jockey, who will settle Dance City in the starting gate Saturday for the 136th Preakness Stakes. "I still have my place in Fair Hill and I love it there. I have great memories in Maryland."
It was here that Dominguez developed his extraordinary understanding of the horses he rides and perfected the use of his sensitive hands to guide and relax them. He became the winningest jockey in the United States in 2001, a feat he repeated in 2003. The next year he won the Isaac Murphy Award as the jockey with the highest winning percentage. All of that occured before he moved his tack to New York, where he is currently ranked third in the country in winnings this year with $5.9 million. Just last weekend he added to his list of major victories by bringing Alternation home first in the $200,000 Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.
But there is still a dream left for him to achieve at Pimlico, still a trance to be conjured, and a Preakness to be won.
"When I first came to Maryland and had moments of quiet between riding horses, I'd think about the Preakness," Dominguez said this week. "I'd think about the big league. It seemed far-fetched to me, surely a dream to win the Preakness."
When Dominguez takes Dance City to post Saturday, it will be the ninth time in 11 years that he will take a shot at winning this Triple Crown race. Since 2001, when he rode long shot Bay Eagle to eighth place, his best finish has been second — twice. In 2005 he brought Scrappy T home 4 3/4-lengths behind Afleet Alex. And last year aboard First Dude, he was again second, this time to Lookin At Lucky. Never had he been so close, just 1 3/4-lengths from victory.
"Last year was really exciting," said Dominguez, 34. "I really wasn't in it until the last few jumps and then I thought I was going to win. Finishing that close, it made me want it more. It got the taste of victory in my mouth. I'm happy to be coming back with Dance City."
Dance City is the son of City Zip and he is trained by Todd Pletcher, who last year won his first Kentucky Derby but, like Dominguez, is still looking for his first Preakness win.
"It seems like [Dance City's] coming up to the race well," Pletcher said Monday. "He's a big, scopey, leggy horse ... He's got tactical speed, but he's a horse that's made to run two turns."
And a horse Dominguez believes is a "very live" mount.
"Ramon has been riding for me since he first came to Maryland and we've had a lot of success together," said Graham Motion, who trains Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. "I believe that so much of what makes a good jockey is confidence and most of the time Ramon is one of the best horses in the race. I have no doubt he believes he can win every time out. And I think you can put Ramon on any horse on any given day and be confident in his ability to win."
In fact, Dominguez admits he always thinks he can win and uses his mixed-bag of Preakness horses to illustrate his belief.
"Those eight horses, I thought I was going to win every one of those races," he said. "It doesn't matter if the horse is 100-to-1 — you hope the race will set up and the horse will run the race of his life. It's the only attitude you can have. You can't think, 'Oh, he's a long shot' or something. That's not the way I can ride.
"I did think I could win each and every one. I thought there was a very good chance that things would set up for my horse."
Last May trainer Dale Romans, who will bring Shackleford to this Preakness, put Dominguez on First Dude.
"I use Ramon whenever I can get him," Romans said. "Jockeys have a split second out there to make decisions and the good ones do that. Ramon does that. Last year we had a horse that was like a freight train once you got him going. But in that race he was partially blocked, but Ramon got him going and kept him going. He rode him hard and I was happy with the finish."
Saturday, in what might be considered a wide-open field, Dominguez is again looking for victory.
"You try to handicap your race," he said. "You anticipate what will happen — who's fast, who's the closer. But a lot of times you have to improvise. Things don't go the way you think. What I know about Saturday is that I'm very excited to get the mount. I know he has a very good chance and I'll hope Ramon Dominguez gets the job done."