07/14/2008 12:00AM

Rosario riding into the limelight


Joel Rosario can count on two hands, with a finger to spare, his number of winners at Del Mar in 2007.

"I rode longshot horses, not so good horses," he remembers.

Last year, Rosario was an anonymous jockey at the most popular meeting in California. This year, he will be at the center of attention.

Rosario, 23, whose first name is pronounced JO-ell, is a different jockey in 2008 than he was in 2007. Last year at Del Mar, he was a virtual unknown on a crowded Southern California jockey roster, a guy best known for finishing second to Russell Baze at two Northern California meetings in early 2007.

This year, the native of the Dominican Republic is in the midst of a breakthrough season. After finishing fifth in the standings at the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, Rosario finished second to Rafael Bejarano at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting that ended on Sunday. Bejarano won 54 races, Rosario 44.

For Rosario, a riding title at Del Mar is not out of the question. Neither is winning as many as last year's nine-race total in one or more of the meet's six-day racing weeks. Gone are the days of riding hopeless longshots. Today, he is in demand by leading trainers such as Jerry Hollendorfer and John Sadler. It would be a surprise if Rosario is not in the top five in the jockey standings when Del Mar ends on Sept. 3.

"I think I'm better right now," he said.

All of this has happened just two years after he arrived in California from the Dominican Republic, with barely a working knowledge of English. Rosario, a four-time leading rider in the Dominican Republic, won his first race there at the age of 15 in 2000. He had further success in other parts of the Caribbean, winning the Angel Cordero Jockey Challenge in Puerto Rico in 2005, but yearned for more.

Urged to emigrate to California by Herbert Soto, a native of the Dominican Republic and a bloodstock agent in California, Rosario first rode at Fairplex Park in 2006. He moved to Northern California that fall, and directly into the shadow of Baze. But after Rosario won five races in a day in April 2007 at Bay Meadows and finished second to Baze at two consecutive meetings early that year, jockey agent Vince De Gregory phoned Rosario and urged him to come south.

"I knew that I had the opportunity to work hard, that I could go to the Kentucky Derby," he said, explaining part of the decision to relocate. Vince "called me and said come down. This has been my dream to come here."

The early results were poor. Rosario had only four wins during the 2007 Hollywood spring-summer meeting, 9 at Del Mar, 12 at Oak Tree, and 6 at the Hollywood Park fall meeting. During those meets, he never won with more than 10 percent of his mounts.

"It's tough here," he said. "There are champion jockeys all over."

Then came the winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita, and Rosario broke through. With what he described as an added commitment to working in the mornings, he got better mounts, and more attention from trainers such as Sadler, who won the Hollywood trainer title. Rosario made the most of the opportunity. In January, he won his first graded stakes - aboard the Sadler-trained Zappa in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap, a $250,000 race.

"That day I was so happy," he said. "That day, I think my business went up."

The success continued at Hollywood Park. July 4 was his best day of the meeting - three winners, including the $100,000 Flawlessly Stakes on Starry Pursuit. A month earlier, he had scored what amounted to his biggest win of the meeting, with Misty Ocean in the $175,000 Honeymoon Handicap, a Grade 2. Even though that race was more valuable, Rosario retains a softer spot for Starry Pursuit.

"Misty Ocean is a nice filly," he said. "I have the most confidence in Starry Pursuit."

Starry Pursuit is expected to run in the Grade 2 San Clemente on July 26, while Misty Ocean is being pointed for the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks Aug. 16.

Rosario caught Sadler's eye when the rider was based in Northern California. Sadler thinks Rosario could show even more ability with experience.

"He's a good sit-still rider, not a physical rider," Sadler said. "He's young enough, and he could improve."

Whether Rosario can find further success locally or on the national stage depends somewhat on the upcoming Del Mar meeting. Aside from day-to-day success, he is seeking more stakes mounts.

"Right now, I'm the second-leading jockey," he said in the jockeys' room at Hollywood Park over the weekend. "That's not bad."

No, not bad at all, and incentive to aim even higher.