02/29/2012 4:24PM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Triple Crown victory one of the few eluding Dominguez

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Ramon Dominguez is the regular rider of Hansen. Dominguez is still searching for his first win in a Triple Crown race.

He’s got a lovely wife and two young sons, and a professional career that has brought him the last two Eclipse Awards as champion jockey, a couple of Breeders’ Cup victories, and, this past week, the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. What Ramon Dominguez doesn’t have, yet, is a win in a Triple Crown race. Not the Kentucky Derby, nor the Preakness, nor the Belmont.

“It’s definitely something I think of, especially this time of year it comes to mind,” Dominguez said in a phone interview earlier this week from his home near Belmont Park. “But I’ve had so many good things come my way the last few years, it would be unfair for me to focus on that.

“That said, like any jockey in the United States, I’d like to win the Derby, or a Triple Crown race. All I can do is prepare the best I can, and hopefully be in the right place at the right time.”

The right place on Saturday for Dominguez will be Aqueduct, where he will ride Hansen, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, in the Gotham Stakes. Hansen is one of two top Derby contenders Dominguez is currently riding. He also is aligned with Alpha, who will make his next start in either the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 31 or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7.

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It only seems a matter of time before Dominguez, 35, wins a Triple Crown race. He is clearly in the prime of his career right now, a melding of his growing skills as a rider and the acumen of his agent, Steve Rushing, one of the most respected at his profession. Together, they have dominated New York racing in recent years. Dominguez rides for just about all the top barns on the NYRA circuit, and, in the case of Mike Maker with Hansen, is sought out by leading trainers outside his home base.

“With limited opportunities, we’ve had a lot of success together,” Maker said. “I like that he always rides a smart race. He gives you an opportunity to win. He’s got a lot of intelligence. You can see how well prepared he is when he gets to the paddock. And his feedback after a race is second to none.”

In fact, a subtle equipment change for Hansen this week came about because of the dialogue between Dominguez and Maker. Hansen is going to remove blinkers for the Gotham, but he also will be changing bits from what he used in the Holy Bull, his most recent start, in which he finished second to Algorithms while suffering the first loss of his career.

“He was a bit headstrong in his last race, so we’re going to change back to a ring bit,” Maker said. “He was wearing a snaffle bit.”

“Sometimes less is more,” Dominguez said. “The bit he had was too severe. We agreed. We are on the same page.”

In the Holy Bull, Hansen set swift fractions after stumbling at the start.

“I thought it was a pretty gutsy race,” Dominguez said. “He was hard to handle last time. He was coming off a semi-layoff, and sometimes when a horse stumbles leaving the gate, they run off. They get on the bridle. You hope they come back to you. He impressed me because he was very rank, but he continued to gallop out strong after the race. He held his ground. He was determined. He kept trying. After an effort like that, I expected him to pull up pretty quickly when we were galloping out, but he continued trying. He wasn’t out of breath.”

Alpha won the Count Fleet and the Withers over Aqueduct’s inner track in his last two starts, the only two times Dominguez has been aboard him.

“I’m very excited about him, too,” Dominguez said. “He definitely improved a lot from his previous race to his last one. He was stronger. He finished better. I love his attitude. He’s very kind, so kind that he’s the type of horse that you don’t know if you have any horse or not. But when it’s time to go, he’s there.”

Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Alpha, said that in addition to Dominguez being a good rider, he’s also a good guy.

“He’s a real gentleman to begin with, really classy, and it carries over to his riding,” McLaughlin said. “He can do well with different types of horses. He has great hands. He’s very smart.

“He’s a great guy, a real family guy,” McLaughlin added. “A lot of riders have success and go out and buy a fancy car. He drives a Honda. I love that! It says a lot about him. He’s just a regular guy. He doesn’t take for granted anything that he has. He’s a great ambassador for the sport.”

Dominguez’s peers obviously agree, for they are the ones who voted him the Woolf Award, whose qualifications are high standards both on and off the track.

“It definitely meant a lot to me, because the voting is done by your peers,” Dominguez said. “It’s very meaningful, because they judge you by your career on the track and your personal character. That’s very important.”