07/21/2009 11:00PM

Rosario repeat? The pressure's on

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DEL MAR, Calif. - When a steady noise suddenly stops, there is a tendency to look up and exclaim, "What's that?"

This happened at the Hollywood Park meet just put to rest, when for the first time in a year and a half, the leading rider of a major Southern California meet did not answer to either "Hey, Rafael!" or "Mr. Bejarano."

Bejarano's run at the top began with the 2007-08 Santa Anita meet and continued through Hollywood, Del Mar, Oak Tree, Hollywood and then Santa Anita again. There was a time it appeared as if business would be as usual during the '09 Hollywood meet as well, but then Joel Rosario pulled even and drew away late to take the title, 79-69.

Hold off, though, on those cries of "The king is dead, long live the king." Like most riders in demand, Bejarano did his share of traveling during the Hollywood meet, which overlaps all three Triple Crown events and the start of the juicy East Coast summer stakes feast. The number of mounts tell a healthy part of the tale: Rosario rode 357 horses at Hollywood, Bejarano rode 283.

Still, the scoreboard will always record that Rosario deservedly ascended to his first meeting championship against a room that included not only Bejarano but also Garrett Gomez, Victor Espinoza, Mike Smith, Tyler Baze, Alex Solis, and Joe Talamo. And he did it the hard way, by working his butt off, morning and afternoon.

Rosario rode 60 more horses than Bejarano at the Santa Anita meet earlier this year and came up 13 short in the win column, 99-83, so clearly, the difference between Santa Anita and Hollywood was not a simple matter of opportunity. Laffit Pincay once said that to be leading rider at a major meet you must think about nothing else. That is precisely the philosophy Rosario and his agent, Vic Stauffer, applied, building on their solid Santa Anita business with a monomaniacal intensity. Essentially, if it had a chance to hit the board, Rosario rode anything with four feet and a tail.

As the inventory of California horse racing is currently constituted, Rosario's is a business model for success. Fields for the better races trend smaller. Races for the downmarket Thoroughbred prevail. The leading riders once were those who rode first call and often for the class-laden stables of Barrera, Whittingham, McAnally, and Lukas. Now, without a solid claiming stable as an anchor, respected veterans scuffle for satisfying action while the hungry youngsters get most of the playing time.

Rosario's Hollywood coup did not come without cost, although Joel feels just fine. On the next-to-last Saturday of the meet, with

the title only days within grasp, Stauffer indulged in an evening at the Hollywood Bowl with his fiancee and her daughter. The concert was the L.A. Philharmonic performing its "Ultimate Mancini," a tribute to the greatest film composer ever, unless you're the kind of person who just can't handle tunes like "Moon River" or "Days of Wine and Roses."

Somewhere between the opening "Pink Panther" (with appropriate video accompaniment) and what Stauffer recalls dimly as the "Peter Gunn Theme," something went amiss. Stauffer, 50, felt his left arm going numb and useless. He tried to describe what was happening to his fiancee, but what came out was pure gibberish. His next stop was first aid, and there went the concert.

"My blood pressure was 160 over 110," Stauffer said a week later. "The paramedics thought I should go to St. Joseph's in Burbank, so I got to take my first ambulance ride. So on top of everything else I got carsick, because you can't see where you're going except out that little window in the back."

Normally, it is difficult to write with accuracy about jockey's agents on a newspaper deadline, since they can be canned between scratch time and entries without much warning. It is usually not a health issue that takes an agent out of the picture, but they are far from immune. Before Stauffer, Rosario employed the respected veteran Vince DeGregory, who got the young Dominican on solid footing in Southern California after Joel had made an impression in the Bay Area. Stauffer had Rosario's book up north.

In addition to representing Rosario this season, Stauffer also was holding down his usual afternoon job as Hollywood Park's racecaller. There were, at some point, questions of conflict of interest raised, but neither Stauffer's employers at Hollywood nor Rosario had objections. As it turned out, it was his own body who complained about the all-stress diet, and reacted predictably. A battery of tests disclosed neither neurological damage nor a pre-existing condition, and Stauffer was back to work in the Hollywood announcer's stand for the final few days of the meet. Though not exactly a health nut, big Vic swears he will take up yoga and has already given acupuncture a try.

Stauffer thought he could handle both jobs this summer and do them well. This comes under the general headling of "be careful what you wish for." Normally, once Hollywood closes he would head for Santa Rosa to call the races at the traditional fair. But this summer Stauffer not surprisingly is sticking with leading man Rosario at Del Mar, while the golden throated Frank Mirahmadi entertains wine country patrons with his repertoire of calls. On the first three Del mar programs, Rosario was named on 20 horses and Bejarano on 16. Let the games begin.