09/17/2012 4:03PM

Fairplex Park notes: Maldonado has shot to unseat Pedroza as leading rider

Benoit & Associates
Jockey Edwin Maldonado rides Nechez Dawn back after winning the Daisycutter Handicap.

POMONA, Calif. – Edwin Maldonado was new on the block in 2010, riding at Fairplex Park for the first time. It was going to be a short stint in California.

“It was just until the fair ended, and then go back to Louisiana,” Maldonado said. “It was just for three weeks. I never thought to stay.”

Maldonado never went home. Two years after his first California ride, Maldonado has become one of the circuit’s top riders and is positioned for an unlikely achievement – unseating Martin Pedroza as leading jockey at the Los Angeles County Fair.

Pedroza has led the Fairplex standings every year since 1999, but as the 2012 meet enters its final week (closing day is Sunday), Maldonado clings to a 14-12 lead.

“I think I have enough business to give [Pedroza] a fight,” Maldonado said, and vocal Fairplex fans agree. Maldonado hears them all day long and smiles. “Oh yes, I hear them. Every race, they scream, ‘Go! You’re going to win the title!’ ”

Well, maybe. Maldonado hit a roadblock last weekend. Friday through Sunday, he won only one race from 19 mounts, while Pedroza went 7 for 20. Pedroza, who missed Sept. 13 after a spill on Sept. 12, has regained momentum. Pedroza is named on five program favorites Wednesday, while Maldonado rides two.

Regardless of the Fairplex title, Maldonado, 29, has gained a foothold in California. He was fourth in the Del Mar standings, and his mounts this year already earned more than $3 million, double his highest previous total. Maldonado’s initial opportunities in California were from trainers Doug O’Neill and Jeff Bonde.

“Those two gave me a shot to ride when I started here, and I never stopped working,” Maldonado said. “Even though I was working horses I knew I wasn’t going to ride, I never said no to trainers. I always worked horses.”

Born in Ohio, Maldonado won his first race at Assiniboia Downs in Canada, rode in Texas, and settled on the Louisiana circuit before relocating to California in 2010. A father of three girls, Maldonado is quiet and confident.

“I’ve been riding for 11 years now, so I’m not new in the game,” he said. “I know I can ride – it was just a matter of time.”

Recent stakes wins include three for Bonde – 2-year-old Amarish, turf sprinter Nechez Dawn, and female sprinter Izzy Rules. Wednesday, Maldonado rides longshot Close to the Edge in the $50,000 Governor’s Cup Handicap.

Maldonado, who was only 3 for 56 at Fairplex in 2011, is completing his third season at the fair. He has learned the nuances of the five-eighths oval.

“It is about making the turns,” he said. “I don’t care if I’m in front or last, just make sure I have a good hold and make the turns.”

As for the Fairplex riding title, Maldonado looks forward to the challenge.

“I’m glad [Pedroza] is back riding, because I kind of wanted it to be fair and square.”

Dollase looks eastward

The favorites from the Sept. 15-16 stakes – Barretts Debutante fifth-place finisher Pure Indy and Barretts Juvenile winner Tree of Life – might be headed to Kentucky. Pure Indy and Tree of Life are owned by West Point Thoroughbreds and trained by Craig Dollase.

Pure Indy was never comfortable Saturday, finishing fifth as the 7-5 Debutante favorite.

“She just didn’t handle the dirt very well, the first quarter-mile she was spinning her wheels,” Dollase said. “She’s bred up and down for turf, and she really took to the Poly at Del Mar.”

Pure Indy’s impressive debut Sept. 1 on synthetic at Del Mar – last to first with an 81 Beyer Speed Figure – is one reason Dollase expects she can rebound on synthetic at Keeneland, where Pure Indy will go Oct. 5 in the Grade 1 Alcibiades. A good effort in the Alcibiades would lead to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, according to Dollase.

Surface is not an issue for Tree of Life, debut winner on synthetic at Del Mar and stakes winner on dirt at Fairplex. But if Tree of Life stayed home, it would mean wheeling back in just 13 days for the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes on Sept. 29 at. at Santa Anita.

In pointing to the Breeders’ Futurity on Oct. 6, Tree of Life would get an additional week between starts. The question then becomes, is he good enough? Tree of Life won the Barretts Juvenile in 1:20.41, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 58.

Awesome Gem heads Hinds

The 9-year-old gelding Awesome Gem, who has been carrying the West Point banner over seven seasons of racing, is among a deep roster of 18 older horses nominated to the $100,000 Ralph M. Hinds on Sept. 23.

Awesome Gem, purchased for $150,000 by West Point at the Barretts 2005 March sale, has won 11 races and $2,881,370 in 52 starts.

David Flores is expected to ride Awesome Gem in 1 1/8-mile Hinds. Other graded stakes winners nominated to the Hinds include Gladding, Juniper Pass, Kettle Corn, Norvsky, Tres Borrachos, and Worth Repeating.