12/02/2008 12:00AM

Dominguez celebrates birthday in style


Boom boom went the space shuttle Endeavor as it hit the atmosphere before landing in Southern California, at around 1:30 last Sunday afternoon. Rocket Ramon took it from there.

Making a rare Hollywood Park appearance, Ramon Dominguez wrapped up a birthday week to die for by sweeping both the Matriarch with Cocoa Beach and the Hollywood Derby with Court Vision. This followed closely on the heels of his victory in New York the day before aboard Old Fashioned in the Remsen Stakes, and served as a perfect bookend to his 4-for-4 Thanksgiving Day performance at Aqueduct that included Fabulous Strike's score in the Fall Highweight.

It was Sunday's double that really lit the skies, though. By taking down Hollywood's pair of $500,000 events, Dominguez had his single most impressive day since winning the Breeders' Cup Turf aboard Better Talk Now at Lone Star in 2004. He still needs another $1.1 million or so in purses to top his personal best season of $15.3 million, achieved in 2007. But even if he doesn't get there, it appears that being Ramon Dominguez these days is pretty much recession proof.

Dominguez, who turned 32 on Nov. 24, is tall by jockey standards at 5 foot 6 and can sometimes look all arms and legs. But horses respond, as his two national titles (in 2001 and 2003) and more than 3,300 winners would indicate. The native of Caracas, Venezuela, kicked off 2008 by setting an inner-track record for wins at the Aqueduct winter meet. He later added the Delaware Park title, where the casino continues to print purse money, and mixed in a solid fifth in the Saratoga standings for good measure.

There have been a few bumps along the way, including his move at the head of the stretch in the 2005 Preakness, when he swerved badly while leading the pack on Scrappy T and nearly dropped Afleet Alex. Earlier this year, Dominguez ended up apologizing for his ride in the Santa Anita Handicap aboard the troubled third-place finisher Champs Elysses.

But such is the life of any jockey who competes at the top of the game. Headlines of all kinds come with the territory. Even though he has yet to campaign year-round in either California or New York, there is no question that Dominguez has joined that handful of riders in demand.

"I love the West Coast," Dominguez proclaimed as he packed up Sunday evening to make a flight home to Maryland, where he lives the life of a gentleman farmer with his wife and two young sons. "It gives you such a sense of confidence when you go somewhere to ride good horses for good people, like today. I wasn't certain we were going to win by any means, but at least you know you've got a big chance going in."

If you ask Dominguez, the best thing about Cocoa Beach and Court Vision is that they both will be running next season. In six collaborations this year with the colt and the filly, Dominguez has won five times. The only loss was Cocoa Beach's second-place finish to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.

Cocoa Beach, owned by Godolphin Stable, will winter in Kentucky with a group of Sheikh Mohammed's runners, then head back to New York for a springtime return with Godolphin assistant trainer Rick Mettee. Court Vision, owned by IEAH Stable and WinStar Farm, will hook up with the Mott stable in Florida, where plans for a 2009 turf campaign will be hatched.

"He's a small horse, quick on his feet, and when you need it, he's there for you," Dominguez said of Court Vision, who came from the back of the field to win the Derby by three-quarters of a length over Cowboy Cal.

"To be honest, I wasn't comfortable early with the position I had," Dominguez went on. "Being last wasn't what I really wanted. Turning into the stretch I thought about trying to get through, but it didn't seem the best thing for him to do. I had already saved some ground with him on the first turn, so you can afford sometimes to waste a little ground somewhere else. Good horses make up for it, and he sure did. He must have run his last quarter in 22 seconds."

As impressive as Court Vision was in the 1 1/4-mile derby, Cocoa Beach was breathtaking at a mile in the Matriarch. She was appearing on the grass for the first time since her debut in Chile, in January 2007, but the memory lingered. Cocoa Beach ran down defending champ Precious Kitten to win by three-quarters in an effort no less impressive than her second to unbeaten Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup.

Zenyatta herself supplied additional context by appearing earlier in the day with a brief parade before the grandstand and a winner's circle ceremony. Zenyatta will be racing on dirt and synthetic tracks next year, and a rematch between North America's two best mares would be the stuff of dreams, at least for fans. Pragmatic Jerry Moss, Zenyatta's main man, paid Cocoa Beach the ultimate compliment after the Matriarch.

"I hope she stays on the grass," Moss said.

Wherever Cocoa Beach goes, Dominguez will camp out.

"What a nice mare," Dominguez said. "When you look at her, she's not a Zenyatta physically. She's tall, but she's a lot longer than she is tall, and she gets down low, with a huge stride.

"Best of all," Dominguez added, "she loves to run."