01/21/2011 5:55PM

Dominguez savoring view from the top

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Barbara D. Livingston
At 34, Ramon Dominguez won his first Eclipse Award after leading all riders in earnings with $17.4 million.

There he was, dressed like Fred Astaire, cradling his freshly won Eclipse Award and beaming that Ramon Dominguez smile for the event’s official photographer the other night at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. In terms of dreams come true for a boy from Venezuela, this definitely qualified.

“We were way at the back of the room, a long way from the stage,” said Dominguez a few days later, still enjoying the ride. “You couldn’t really hear what was being said, but then we heard them announce, ‘Zenyatta!’ and the place went wild. The photographer jumped and yelled and ran off, and I was left just standing there, still smiling.”

Dominguez took pains to note that the photographer returned a few minutes later and apologized for his sudden departure. Like it mattered. It would have taken a whole lot more to dent the evening for Dominguez, who was winning his first Eclipse, at age 34, in what has become a career characterized by relentlessly upward trajectories since he began riding in the U.S. in 1995.

A native of Caracas, Dominguez is one of a growing number of high-profile Venezuelans making an impact on the American jockey scene. They include Javier Castellano, Eibar Coa, and young Junior Alvarado.

“Horse racing is very important in Venezuela,” Dominguez said. “But it is in a lot of trouble right now, with no real support from the government. There are still a lot of young boys who want to be jockeys, though. If they have to leave the country to do it, they take that chance.”

Friday was a snow day for New York racing, with Aqueduct canceled, which meant Dominguez got to do all the domestic stuff the rest of us are faced with every day. “Grocery shopping,” was his answer to what ranked high on the list, along with picking up his 6-year-old son, Alex, from kindergarten.

It was Alex who greeted Dominguez on Tuesday with a homemade card of congratulations and a small plastic horse, trophies that will be displayed proudly alongside his father’s Eclipse Award. Little brother Matthew, 4 1/2, was just glad to see dad back home.

From all indications, the Ozzie Nelson image attached to Dominguez is pretty much on the money. The game could do a whole lot worse than having the handsome, articulate South American among its marquee images.

There have been 21 jockeys honored in the 40-year history of the Eclipse Awards. Seven of those went to Jerry Bailey and four each to Pat Day and Laffit Pincay. But since Bailey’s retirement, there has been no single name dominating the conversation, with recent awards going to John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, Garrett Gomez, Julien Leparoux, and now Dominguez.

That is a good thing. The game needs a vibrant gallery of recognizable riding stars. And while Dominguez has emerged as the dominant figure on the New York circuit the last two seasons, his fans are looking forward to the day they see him with regularity on the national stage.

He has come oh so close. Were it not for such towering talents as Barbaro, Zenyatta, and Goldikova, Dominguez already would have won a Kentucky Derby and added two more Breeders’ Cup victories to the shocker he pulled aboard Better Talk Now in the 2004 Turf.

Before the 2010 season, Dominguez had been national champion twice in terms of winning mounts, in 2001 and 2003. But unlike earlier eras, when the finite achievement of winning races determined the champions, these days you don’t even get a belt buckle unless you top the earnings list, as well. Which is what Dominguez did in 2010, with $17.4 million banked by his mounts, while finishing second in the win column.

This makes Dominguez one of those rare double-threat types, who win races and purses in piles. Given his inclination, with the support of agent Steve Rushing, to ride every card every day, Dominguez has a shot in the near future to become the first rider to top both tables since Chris McCarron turned the trick in 1980.

“I can’t think of another rider who is better tactically than Ramon right now,” said Richard Migliore, who rode against Dominguez often before his retirement last year. “You never see him in the wrong place.

“And no one takes a longer hold, with his hands not just at the base of the horse’s neck, but almost in the saddle,” Migliore said. “Horses relax for him, but it also has the effect of making him look a little, shall we say, awkward when he goes to riding at the finish.”

Dominguez conceded Migliore’s points.

“I did not take that kind of long hold when I was younger,” Dominguez said. “It just kind of evolved the more I rode here. I would take a longer and longer hold, and the horses seemed to like it. I know that puts my elbows past my body, and I might look different from other riders in that respect. But the horses don’t know what I look like up there. How they feel is all that matters.”

As 2011 begins to unfurl, Dominguez is positioned well as the regular rider of Boys At Tosconova, runner-up to Uncle Mo in Eclipse Award balloting among 2-year-olds, and Gio Ponti, the two-time turf champ who is staying in training for another season. It does not take much imagination to picture such animals carrying their rider to the top of places like Churchill Downs and Dubai.

Dominguez concedes he has traveled a universe from his days riding in what he calls the “bushes” of Venezuela, in his case the Hipodromo Paraguana in the northern city of Punto Fijo.

“It’s all been a little surreal,” Dominguez said. “After the dinner the other night I began to think back over the last 16 years and how fast it seemed to go. But then at the same time I remembered those first experiences riding at a bush track, dreaming of riding in Caracas, or the United States. But never really dreaming of anything this big.”