05/14/2013 3:06PM

Preakness Stakes: Rosario back on top of his game

Barbara D. Livingston
Joel Rosario (left) at Pimlico last year with Creative Cause, whom he rode to a third in last year’s Preakness. He rides Derby winner Orb this year.

Joel Rosario had returned to the jockeys’ room at Pimlico after riding one of the undercard races on Preakness Day last May and noticed he had several missed calls from his brother Danny.

Without listening to any of the messages, Joel called his older brother, who picked up the phone, crying.

Danny Rosario stopped crying long enough to tell Joel that their older brother Marino had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Marino, a police officer in the Dominican Republic and one of 12 of Rosario’s siblings, had been struck by a truck on his way to work.

“I was in shock,” Rosario, 28, said in a recent interview. “I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.”

Shaken and obviously heartbroken, Rosario tried to concentrate on the task at hand, which was to ride Creative Cause in the Preakness.

“If it wasn’t the Preakness, I would not ride,” he said. “Even though this happened and I still couldn’t believe it, I just had to go ride. If it was a different race, I probably would have taken off.”

Rosario would finish third aboard Creative Cause, nine lengths behind I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister. Rosario called it a respectable effort, saying simply, “I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister were way too good that day.”

Rosario left Baltimore that evening on a personal low. He returns to Baltimore for Saturday’s 138th Preakness on a professional high as the rider of Kentucky Derby winner Orb. Rosario also is the winner of the $10 million Dubai World Cup on Animal Kingdom in March and the leading jockey in North America in wins (137) and purse money won ($7.9 million).

“It’s good horses,” said Rosario, who also set a Keeneland spring meet record with 38 victories. “I feel like everything is going good for me. The key is the horse. Ride better horses, you have a good chance in the race.”

Rosario’s decision to move his tack from Southern California to New York last summer was primarily about getting the opportunity to ride better horses. Rosario, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2006, dominated the Southern California riding scene from 2009-11, winning all six of Hollywood Park’s titles in that span, all three Del Mar titles, and two Santa Anita riding titles.

“He’s got the touch of a woman and the strength of a man − the guy’s awesome,” said Bob Hess, a trainer with horses in California and New York. “I never tell him anything. He literally is only going to get better and better, not that he has to. I just wish I had better horses so I could get him.”

The combination of losing some of his better horses, the allure of slot-infused purses in New York, and an injury to jockey John Velazquez prompted Rosario and his then-agent, Ron Ebanks, to move East last June.

“I thought of coming here all the time,” Rosario said while sitting in the track kitchen at Belmont Park. “California’s great, but there’s more horses here and more opportunity. If you want to be No. 1, you have to be here.”

As it is with most transitions, it was a slow go at first for Rosario. He went 4 for 44, including a 1-for-33 skid in July, to end the Belmont Park spring meet. Rosario got off to a 6-for-50 start at Saratoga when he fired Ebanks and retained Ron Anderson.

Anderson said he remembers Bobby Frankel, the late Hall of Fame trainer, telling him about Rosario in 2006, when Rosario first came to the United States from Santo Domingo and was riding in Northern California.

“You’d better watch this guy,” Anderson recalls Frankel telling him. “I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘You might be working for him someday. I’m telling you, this kid’s good.’ ”

Coincidence or not, Rosario’s fortunes did pick up with Anderson. He finished Saratoga with 29 wins, fifth in the standings.

MORE: Rosario's Kentucky Derby win bittersweet for ex-agent Ebanks

It was in Saratoga where Rosario first rode Orb, owned by Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and Stuart Janney III and trained by Shug McGaughey. Rosario finished third aboard Orb in an Aug. 18 maiden race that showed the colt’s immaturity and talent. Breaking from the rail in that seven-furlong race, Orb jumped in the air as the gates opened and spotted the field a significant head start. Officially, Orb trailed the field by 14 lengths after the first quarter-mile but rallied to finish third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths by Violence.

“He broke in the air,” Rosario said. “I was so far behind I said, ‘I’m going to finish nowhere after all that happened at the start. Then I turned for home. The horses were getting closer to me, and I said, ‘Maybe we can win the race.’ ”

Though Orb didn’t win, Rosario was still impressed.

“I said, ‘Wow, you don’t really see that,’ ” Rosario said. “When that happens, they can make a little run, but not like he did. He was pretty impressive.”

Orb’s poor gate habits continued in his next two races, a 22 1/4-length loss at Belmont and a 5 1/2-length loss to Vyjack at Aqueduct. On Nov. 24, two weeks after his third loss, Orb won a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct by two lengths over Freedom Child, with Revolutionary another 2 1/4 lengths back in third.

“He didn’t want to be in the gate,” Rosario said. “I think that was the No. 1 thing for him. He was not focused. At Belmont, he jumped inside the gate, and I don’t know how I stayed on him. When he won [his] first race, it looked like he was getting better.”

Orb won his second race Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park, a race Rosario thought the colt would win easier than the one-length margin suggests.

“When I won the allowance race, I thought he was going to win by 10 lengths, then he kind of waited on horses,” Rosario said. “I said, ‘Maybe this horse will be okay.’ I never thought he would be great.”

Rosario did not ride Orb in the Fountain of Youth − Anderson took another call, thinking Orb would not be running, nor did he ride him in the Florida Derby, because Rosario was in Dubai. Orb won those races with John Velazquez. Rosario got the mount back on Orb for the Derby because Velazquez was committed to the undefeated Verrazano for the Derby.

In the Derby, Orb rallied from 18 lengths back to win by 2 1/2 lengths in the slop, taking advantage of the fourth-fastest six-furlong fraction (1:09.80) in Derby history.

“I was so far behind I said, ‘I think they’re going fast,’ ” Rosario said. “I just wanted to make him happy, not let him get too aggressive. He was available to do it all. When I passed the last horse, all I’m thinking is he could pull himself up, so I got after him a little bit and kept him together, but he was much the best.”

Rosario said he is confident Orb can duplicate that effort in Saturday’s Preakness.

“It looks like he’s doing really good right now,” Rosario said. “If he continues to do so, he’s got to have a good chance to win.”