05/03/2007 12:00AM

After 27 years, Pino makes Derby bow


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Do something over and over, and after a while, it should come naturally. And indeed, for jockey Mario Pino, who has ridden in more than 36,000 races, the act of riding a horse around an oval is second nature.

But when Pino, 45, climbs aboard Hard Spun late Saturday afternoon, he will do something he has never done during his 27 years in racing: ride in the Kentucky Derby. As the third-winningest active jockey in North America, with nearly 5,900 career victories, behind only Hall of Famers Russell Baze and Earlie Fires, Pino's first Derby ride seems long overdue - and his legion of fans on the Eastern seaboard surely would say that's true.

"I'll be carrying a lot of weight Saturday," Pino joked earlier this week. "A lot of people in Maryland and Delaware have congratulated me and said they'll be rooting for me - a lot."

Pino began riding at the old Bowie racetrack in 1979 and has been a perennial leading jockey on the Maryland circuit ever since. Although there have been windows of opportunities for him to branch out and ride regularly in New York or Florida, that would have required him leaving his wife, Christina, and three daughters for extended periods of time - something Pino has steadfastly refused to do, regardless of how it may have affected his career.

"One thing you have to realize is that some people are very satisfied with being a big fish in a small pond, and being surrounded with relatives and family, that's what makes them happy," said Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode alongside Pino in Maryland for 3 1/2 years in the late 1980's. "Mario chose to stay in Maryland; it's a deliberate choice he made. It's probably the only reason he hasn't ridden in the Derby before."

Pino said that he long ago resigned himself to never riding in the Derby and that he still would have been satisfied with his career.

"It's almost like God gave me a gift with this horse, Hard Spun," he said of the colt, owned by Rick Porter and trained by Larry Jones. "I got hooked up with him last year and got lucky. I'm thankful the owner and trainer have stuck with me."

The first time he got aboard Hard Spun, before the colt even raced last summer at 2 at Delaware Park, Pino said, "Larry looked at me and said, 'This could be your Derby horse.' And I was like, 'Uhhhh, okay.' How many people say that about their 2-year-olds? Everybody! But I kept getting on him, and he kept getting better and better and blowing everything away, and I started thinking, 'He's right. This is an awesome horse.' "

Pino said Hard Spun can be very deceiving in how easily he does things, which helps explain the sizzling five-furlong workout that was the talk of the Churchill Downs backstretch during Derby Week. With Pino sitting still until deep stretch, Hard Spun was timed in 57.60 seconds while being asked for his best only in deep stretch. "He did it all within himself," said Pino.

If Hard Spun can pull off the mild upset in the 133rd Derby, it would mark the 41st time a jockey has won with his first Derby mount. The last three to do so were Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones, 2004), Ronnie Franklin (Spectacular Bid, 1979), and Steve Cauthen (Affirmed, 1978).

Desormeaux, whose ride aboard Stormello on Saturday will be his 14th in the Derby, tying him with Mike Smith for the most Derby mounts among this year's list of riders, won the Derby twice, with Real Quiet in 1998 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Only three other jockeys in this Derby have won at least once: Elliott, Smith (Giacomo, 2005), and Edgar Prado (Barbaro, 2006).

Desormeaux said Pino's first Derby mount reminds him somewhat of Elliott, who gave Smarty Jones a flawless ride.

"They're both veterans, and they've both been in plenty of pressure situations before," he said. "Mario knows the lay of the land. It's not like this is going to be anything new to him. He's going to get some butterflies. I still do; I think we all do. But if his horse gets beat, it's only because he gets outrun. It's not going to be because of the jock, I know that."

Pino is one of three jockeys making a Derby debut on Saturday, along with Julien Leparoux (on Sedgefield) and Juan Leyva (Storm in May). Both Leparoux and Leyva are 23, meaning Pino had already been riding professionally for several years when they were born. To his credit, and true to his easygoing nature, Pino is not bitter in the least about younger jockeys getting their first Derby chance while he had to wait until the twilight of his career to get his.

"I'm just glad to be in it," he said.

"Mario is an example of a perfect gentleman," said Desormeaux. "I've never known a person to have a beef with him, and all of the Marylanders are big supporters of his because of the way he conducts himself. He comes in the room, doesn't say a word to anyone, goes about his business, then goes home to his family. There really is something to be said about that."