08/02/2013 4:40PM

Saratoga: Rocco proving he can compete with the sport's best

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Barbara D. Livingston
Joe Rocco Jr. returns aboard Lighthouse Bay after winning the Grade 1 Prioress.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – When George Weaver decided at the last minute to run Lighthouse Bay in the Grade 1 Prioress Stakes here on July 27, he had many riders from which to choose.

He selected Joe Rocco Jr.

“I was looking at what I had available; I was like, this is going to be a great fit,” said Weaver, who had been impressed with Rocco this winter at Gulfstream. “I was really happy about it. Sometimes you ride jockeys and you don’t always get the jockey you want. I didn’t feel like I was taking a backseat at all. I was extremely confident that he could get it done.”

Rocco indeed got it done, guiding 21-1 shot Lighthouse Bay to a half-length victory over Wildcat Lily. The Prioress has been the highlight so far of what has been a terrific first Saratoga meet for Rocco, the 31-year-old son of retired jockey Joe Rocco Sr.

Rocco entered Friday’s card with 5 wins from 34 mounts through the first 12 days of the meet. He also won the $100,000 Evan Shipman Stakes aboard longshot Bigger Is Bettor.

Rocco had offers to ride in Kentucky and south Florida this summer, but opted for Saratoga.

“Seemed like the logical choice; trying to forward my career, maybe get to the next level,” Rocco said Friday morning. “It’s worked out pretty good so far.”

Rocco has enjoyed a terrific 2013. His nine stakes wins are a single-year high. His seven graded stakes victories – including the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps on Memorial Day at Belmont Park aboard Tiz Miz Sue – this year are more than he had total since he began riding in 1999.

“My goals were to come up here, have a good, safe meet, ride good, just try to ride smart races and make a good impression on people,” said Rocco, who is represented by agent Lenny Pike. “Obviously, you want to make money. Purses being so good up here you don’t have to win as much, but now that you’ve won some races, hopefully the ball keeps rolling.”

Rocco, who rode with many of the same riders he competes with in Saratoga at Gulfstream and Kentucky, is picking up more business, albeit somewhat sporadically. He was named on nine mounts on Saturday, but only three Sunday and one Monday.

“It’s funny, it’s the same people that you ride for, but when you come up here you still have to prove that you fit in,” Rocco said. “It’s all the same people, just a different racetrack.”

Rocco bounced around from different circuits early in his career before settling in Delaware in the mid-2000s. He was the leading rider at Delaware Park in 2011.

In 2008, Rocco and his wife Jamie had their first child, Brodie, who was diagnosed with a single ventricle heart and needed six operations from the time he was born until the age of 2.

With his son doing fine now – “You’d never know anything was ever wrong,” he said – Rocco has spent the last two years riding in South Florida and Kentucky. He, his wife and two children make their home in Louisville.

In January, at Gulfstream, Rocco picked up his 1,000th career victory. Talk to him for a little while and its easy to tell he takes great pride in his craft.

“If I ride a smart race, I feel really good about it afterward,” Rocco said. “When you go around there on a favorite on the lead the whole way and not much thought process, to me, at least, you don’t feel as good about yourself afterwards as when you think you rode a real smart race and you feel like you contributed to the horse winning.”

Trainer Michael Matz used Rocco frequently when he was based at Delaware Park and is not surprised that Rocco is succeeding on a bigger stage.

“He sits well on a horse, he’s a smart kid, he’s good to talk to,” Matz said. “I’m happy for him because I used him all the time at Delaware and he went to places to improve himself and now he’s up here and making a good account of himself. He’s done everything in the right progression.”