12/21/2012 5:39PM

Santa Anita: Maldonado looks to build upon momemtum as impact rider

Benoit & Associates
Edwin Maldonado, winning the Cool Air Stakes aboard Kindle, has elevated his profile in Southern California by winning riding titles at Fairplex Park and Betfair Hollywood Park..

By the time he gets home each evening, after a full day of riding morning workouts and afternoon races, jockey Edwin Maldonado is not quite done racing around.

His 3-year-old daughter often wants a piggyback ride.

“She’ll tell me, ‘Daddy, I want to get on your back,’ ” Maldonado said.

“I tell her I’m tired. It’s hard to say no.”

These days, it is easy for Maldonado to say yes. Everything he tries has succeeded.

Two years after moving from Louisiana to Southern California, the 30-year-old Maldonado has enjoyed a career-defining autumn, winning riding titles at the Los Angeles County Fair meeting at Fairplex Park in September and the fall meeting at Betfair Hollywood Park, which ended on Dec. 16.

How far has Maldonado come this year? At the six race meetings on the Southern California circuit in 2011, Maldonado won 40 races. So far this year, he has won a career-best 129 races.

“I’m happy with where I am right now,” he said earlier this month. “People are beginning to pay attention now.”

The two riding titles have given Maldonado a prominent role on the circuit at the outset of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting. He will contend for the title at the four-month meeting with Rafael Bejarano, who won three riding titles at Santa Anita from 2008 to 2010 and has been second the last two years to Joel Rosario, and with Joe Talamo, who won the riding title at the Santa Anita fall meeting.

Maldonado’s success fulfills a lifelong wish to ride in Southern California.

To get to California, Maldonado took a circuitous route: from his home in Puerto Rico to Canada and then to Texas and Louisiana before moving to California.

His first winner was at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg in September 2002. He won 19 races in a month there. That fall, he moved south to Sam Houston Race Park, where he had 15 more wins by the end of that year.

Maldonado stayed on the Lone Star-Retama Park-Sam Houston circuit until the fall of 2004, when he moved to Louisiana. He rode primarily at Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs for the next six years, with occasional trips back to Texas.

There were plenty of winners – as many as 87 in 2006 – but few stakes wins. By the summer of 2010, at the urging of current agent Vic Lipton, Maldonado felt it was time for a change.

Maldonado moved to California, helped financially by a sister in the area who opened her home to him.

“I didn’t have to pay rent,” he said.

Maldonado’s stay in California was intended to be short, but that plan quickly changed.

Maldonado won 11 races in Southern California in the final four months of 2010 and had 10 wins at the 2010-11 Santa Anita winter-spring meeting and 11 at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. He had just enough success to stay on the circuit.

But Maldonado switched agents a few times and then went back to Lipton last fall. The jockey’s career was revived and so was the enthusiasm of the agent, who had been battling illness.

Maldonado finished 12th with 18 wins at the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting last year and has not been out of the top six since.

The difference, he said, has been a renewed dedication in devoting himself to the racetrack.

“I’m here six days a week,” he said.

“I try to take Tuesdays off and come out for the rest of the day. Even if I don’t have any workers, you need to be out.”

There has been no shortage of everyday mounts, but the stakes rides have been harder to find. Since Fairplex Park, Maldonado’s only stakes win was in the Cool Air Stakes at Hollywood Park in November on Kindle. He is looking forward to riding that mare during the upcoming Santa Anita meeting.

On Wednesday’s opening day, Maldonado rides Nechez Dawn in the $300,000 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies for trainer Jeff Bonde, one of the rider’s strongest backers. Nechez Dawn was second in the Skillful Joy Stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 1.

Bonde has given mounts to Maldonado frequently in the last six months.

“He’s always out there early in the morning,” Bonde said. “A lot of people work hard, but one of his attributes is his ability to get a horse away from the gate well and be able to ration that speed. He’s a strong finisher. He’s got a little bit of everything in that regard.”

Finding more top rides is a goal for the upcoming winter-spring meeting, along with challenging for the riding title. Maldonado admits that will be difficult, with so many stables – and jockeys – focusing on the meeting.

“Santa Anita is harder,” he said. It’s tough to win there. I want to give Bejarano a run for the money.”