Updated on 09/15/2011 1:38PM

America's top rider?

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Jim McCue
The Maryland-based Dominguez often rides seven days a week, sometimes night and day.

WASHINGTON - For the first time in months, Ramon Dominguez can almost relax.

The Maryland-based jockey has been working obsessively, often riding seven days a week, sometimes day and night. He has climbed aboard more horses in 2001 than any other jockey in the world, with one goal in mind: to be America's top race-winning rider.

He has been battling Russell Baze, the northern Californian rider who has won the title six times. By winning a race at Laurel Park Wednesday, Dominguez took a

417-416 lead in the transcontinental competition and he is unlikely to relinquish it, because Baze has virtually conceded by taking eight days off over the holidays. On Dec. 31, Dominguez will officially claim an honor he couldn't have dreamed of two years ago.

Dominguez, 25, learned to ride in his native Venezuela; as soon as he saved enough money he obtained a visa and moved to Miami, determined to establish himself in this country. He came north in 1998 to ride at Delaware Park, and by the next season he was the fifth-ranked jockey at that track. Nobody hailed him as a budding superstar, but one person who saw potential in him was jockey agent Steve Rushing.

Rushing had teamed with Edgar Prado to win the national riding title three straight years, from 1997 to 1999, ending Baze's years of domination.

But when Prado moved from Maryland to the big leagues of New York, Rushing decided to stay at home, and he needed a new jockey. He wanted a rider with talent, of course, but he also wanted one with the kind of work ethic that Prado had displayed in riding some 2,000 races a year. When Rushing sounded out Dominguez about splitting his time between Maryland and Delaware and riding seven days a week, the jockey replied: "Seven days a week? I love it!" Rushing had his man.

In the first full year of the Dominguez-Rushing partnership, the jockey won 360 races and ranked third in the nation as Baze won the title. Because of his growing reputation, his services were even more in demand, and he figured to have a prolific 2001. But in addition to Baze, Dominguez had another formidable rival, a rider who would work as hard as he does.

An agent is permitted to represent two jockeys, and Rushing's other client, Travis Dunkelberger, has a keen work ethic, too. Dunkelberger regularly rides in the afternoon at Laurel and in the evening at Charles Town, where he is the leading jockey. Since the two young men might compete for the same mounts in Maryland, they could easily be bitter or jealous competitors; remarkably, they view their relationship as a positive synergy and are mutually supportive.

"When we ride, we're rivals," Dominguez said, "but we have a great relationship. We look after each other."

For much of the year, Dunkelberger led Dominguez and Baze in the nation's jockey standings - until he took a spill on a cheap horse at Charles Town and broke his collarbone, sidelining him for several weeks. Suddenly Dominguez was in the race of his life against Baze.

"It took me by surprise," he said. "I believe Travis would have been the leading rider if he hadn't gotten hurt."

For the battle with Baze, Dominguez and Rushing shifted into overdrive.

While Baze is the kingpin of his racing circuit, regularly riding short-priced favorites in small fields, Dominguez had the advantage of being in the midst of mid-Atlantic region's glut of racetracks. He rode at Charles Town three nights last week. With Laurel dark Tuesday, he traveled to Philadelphia Park to ride a single race. Rushing told trainers what he was trying to accomplish, and appealed, "We'd appreciate anything you can do for us." Trainers might need one of Rushing's jockeys to ride a horse for them, and they know the agent will remember to return a favor.

Yet after all of their intense efforts, Dominguez's victory in the national race will be somewhat anticlimactic. After Baze won three races on Monday's card at Golden Gate Fields, the track closed for an eight-day holiday break. Baze's agent Ray Harris said that Baze wouldn't go elsewhere to bolster his victory total.

"He's going to spend some time with his family," Harris said. "He's won the title before. It's no big deal to him."

Does the national riding title really mean anything? Even Rushing acknowledged, "I don't know if people care." And it might not mean much if a rider becomes No. 1 by being a big fish in a small pond.

But the list of riders who have accomplished the feat is an illustrious one that includes names such as Shoemaker, Longden, Hartack, Day, Cordero, Pincay, and McCarron - all Hall of Famers. "It's something that will always be remembered," said Dominguez, envisioning his name in this lofty company.

Don't tell him that it's no big deal.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post