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On the rise? These four riders have arrived
ARCADIA, Calif. - The highest echelon of the American jockey colony has undergone substantial change over the last decade with the retirements of numerous legendary riders. Although their spots were quickly taken by the next generation - 30-something stars such as Kent Desormeaux, Garrett Gomez, John Velazquez, and Robby Albarado - it has only been within the last year that another wave of jockeys has made strong bids to crash through the glass ceiling.
Four jockeys are enjoying their best years: Ramon Dominguez, Julien Leparoux, Rajiv Maragh, and Joel Rosario. As the second quarter-century of Breeders' Cups gets under way this weekend at Santa Anita, it is they, as much as anyone, who are the future of horse racing.
"I was listening to someone wax poetic about the bygone days of Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Gary Stevens," said Vic Stauffer, the longtime Hollywood Park race-caller who now doubles as agent for Rosario. "And I thought, the new jocks, like Joel - they are McCarron and Pincay, just 20 years later. They're here. They're them."
While it is easy to argue that other young jockeys such as Rafael Bejarano and Alan Garcia already have joined the elite, this has not been their best year, at least statistically. And whereas Dominguez and Leparoux were entrenched before as top-class jockeys, they have taken their games to even higher levels in 2009.
The rises for Maragh and Rosario have only recently become meteoric. Maragh, in his second full season based in New York, already has exceeded the career benchmark he set for himself last year, when his mounts earned a little more than $10 million. At roughly the same time, Rosario has become the leading rider in Southern California, winning the latest meets at Hollywood and Del Mar while soaring past his career-high earnings mark of nearly $8 million last year.
Rosario, like the other up-and-comers, is polite and well-spoken, especially considering English is not his first language. A native of the Dominican Republic, Rosario, 24, first came to the United States in 2006 and quickly became known as a top riding prospect on the Northern California circuit. He moved south in June 2007 and has risen steadily through the ranks ever since.
"People have been giving me the opportunity with better horses, and that has given me a little more confidence," said Rosario. "After I won Del Mar, I was thinking in my mind, 'Wow, I can do it.' I won a Sunshine Millions race [the Oaks on Beltene], and hopefully, we will win in the Breeders' Cup. Maybe one day the Kentucky Derby."
Maragh, a native of Jamaica, has been called "one of the young lions" by Rick Mettee, the New York-based assistant for the Godolphin Racing powerhouse. Bailey, the retired Hall of Fame jockey who is now a commentator for ESPN and ABC, called him "really bright" with a "great ability to absorb advice and execute it."
Last month, Maragh, 24, ventured from New York to be the dominant jockey of FallStars Weekend at Keeneland in Kentucky, winning five races over the Oct. 9-11 weekend, including two Grade 1 stakes. His agent, Richard DePass, is widely acknowledged as one of the best in the business, and it is difficult indeed to find a racing insider who does not foresee great things for Maragh.
Dominguez, at 32, has been around longer than the others, having come to prominence nearly a decade ago at lesser East Coast tracks. He perennially ranks among the national leaders in wins, having peaked in 2003 with 453, and his mounts have earned at least $10.8 million annually since 2003.
But 2009 has been a breakthrough year for Dominguez. Having moved his tack permanently to New York after years of traveling back and forth from other Mid-Atlantic states, he easily led the spring-summer standings at Belmont Park, then really put a feather in his riding cap by taking his first Saratoga riding title with 45 winners.
"I don't know how the other guys feel, but when you're working and pushing yourself every day, it's hard to stop and think, 'I've made it to the top, I've conquered everything,'" said Dominguez. "But coming to New York and riding with these guys every day, I definitely feel like I've accomplished something."
Dominguez, a native of Venezuela, said he is especially excited about his chances in the richest race of the Breeders' Cup series, the $5 million Classic. He will ride Gio Ponti, the stretch-running colt he guided to victory in the Kilroe Mile, Man o' War Stakes, and Arlington Million earlier this year.
"I rode him when he was 2, and he is so much more mature now, such a classy horse," said Dominguez.
Like Dominguez, Leparoux has known considerable success in recent years, with his mounts having knocked out an average of more than $12 million annually since 2006. This year, however, his mounts already have earned more than $15 million. Into the Breeders' Cup, he and Dominguez have been neck-and-neck for leading earner, with only Gomez within striking distance.
With several particularly live Breeders' Cup mounts, Leparoux, at 26, has become one of the prime-time players in American jockeydom.
"Ever since I won the Breeders' Cup with Forever Together," said Leparoux, referring to the 2008 Filly and Mare Turf, "things have been really, really good."
Leparoux went on to have a great fall meet at Churchill Downs, including a seven-win day, and did well at Gulfstream. He proceeded to have productive meets in Kentucky and at Saratoga, and as the Breeders' Cup has neared, Leparoux said he is happy with his position in the American hierarchy.
"I keep my head on my shoulders, but I'm very happy to do as well as I'm doing," he said. "Hopefully, we can keep on going like this."
Evaluating the pecking order of the American riding colony is subjective at best, impossible at worst. There are the older riders with major accomplishments, such as Mike Smith, Edgar Prado, Alex Solis, and Calvin Borel. There are the younger riders nearing their prime, such as Tyler Baze, Joe Talamo, Elvis Trujillo, and Jose Lezcano.
And there is the unofficial ruling class, led by Gomez and Velazquez, pressed by their heirs apparent: Bejarano, Garcia, Dominguez, Leparoux, Maragh, and Rosario.
With the 26th Breeders' Cup at hand, the sport appears to be in good hands - whomever's hands those might be.
"The thing about this new group of riders is they're all good guys who do the right things," said Stauffer. "They take their hats off and say, 'Yes, sir,' they work on their people skills, they go home at night and stay out of trouble. They're the kind of ambassadors the game will need when some of the older guys start retiring."