07/17/2013 2:40PM

Saratoga: Rosario prime candidate to become New York's next dominant rider

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Tom Keyser
Joel Rosario, formerly based in California, has been winning races in bunches since coming east and could succeed the retired Ramon Dominguez as leading rider at Saratoga.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.– In the last four months, Joel Rosario has conquered Dubai, England, Lexington, and Louisville.

Is Saratoga next?

With the sudden retirement of Ramon Dominguez – who dominated last year’s Saratoga meet with a single-meet record 68 victories – the race for leading rider at the 150th anniversary Saratoga meet, which begins Friday, would seem up for grabs. Eight of the 10 top money-leading riders in the country – including Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Rosie Napravnik, and Jose Lezcano – will be among those competing daily at Saratoga.

But when you consider what Joel Rosario has done in his first full year riding on the East Coast, it would hardly be surprising if the 28-year-old native of the Dominican Republic finishes the meet on Labor Day as the leading jockey.

Through Tuesday, Rosario was North America’s leading rider in wins (192) and purse money won ($13,256,902) in 2013 and that doesn’t count victories aboard Animal Kingdom in the $10 million Dubai World Cup or No Nay Never in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot in June. He is North America’s leading rider in stakes victories (37), and his 23 graded stakes victories – including his first Kentucky Derby aboard Orb – rank him second only to John Velazquez (25) in that category.

In his first full meet at Gulfstream, Rosario finished second in the standings in wins with 89 – 11 fewer than Castellano – and third in purse money won.

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During the 16-day Keeneland meet in April, Rosario won 38 races, a record for a spring meet. Though the two meets ran at corresponding times, Rosario was the leading rider in purse money won at both Churchill Downs and Belmont Park.

For all of Rosario’s success, his agent, Ron Anderson, said, “I feel like we’re just getting started.”

Rosario finished third in the standings at Belmont Park with 48 wins – 24 less than Castellano – ending the meet on a surprising 0-for-20 streak. His commitments out of town limited him to 249 mounts, 67 fewer than Castellano.

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Rosario had been based in Southern California until June 2012, when he moved his tack to the East Coast. In his first meet at Saratoga, Rosario won 29 races, placing him fifth in the standings.

“I was happy with that and to be there for the first time coming from California I thought was very good,” Rosario said.

Since coming east, Rosario has displayed an aggressive style that has served him well at times, stealing many races on the front end. That style was in sharp contrast to how he was viewed in California.

“When I was in California, people said I was a jockey that came from off the pace. When I come here, they say I’m a speed rider,” Rosario said. “I just ride the horse and let them do their thing. Sometimes I try to change things. If it works, it works, if not . . . ”

Wesley Ward, for whom Rosario has ridden 19 winners from 57 mounts this year, said Rosario is simply making all the right moves.

“I think he’s the now rider,” said Ward, a former Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey himself. “I think he’s a very strong rider, a very strong finisher, and he rides with a lot of confidence. A strong rider like he is that can come from behind, use that power he’s got, and have them running the last part of the race is very beneficial. And he’s making all the right moves, like a baseball player or a football player in a zone.”

Proof of Rosario being in high demand is that through the first 17 days of July, Rosario has ridden at seven tracks, including Wednesday’s opening-day card at Del Mar. He is named to ride in nine races on Saratoga’s opening-day card.

“He’s got youth on his side. Now is his time,” Ward said. “Anytime I can get him, I certainly want to take advantage of it.”

Owner Ken Ramsey, who has announced his intentions to be Saratoga’s leading owner, said he plans to use Rosario as much as he can.

“I want him riding for me, not against me,” said Ramsey, who has Rosario on three of his horses opening day.

Rosario rides for just about everyone and has a high win percentage from limited mounts with many of New York’s leading trainers, including David Jacobson (5 for 13), Chad Brown (5 for 14), Todd Pletcher (5 for 16), and Bill Mott (12 for 42).

“After I win the Dubai World Cup and Kentucky Derby that helped me a lot,” Rosario said. “After I win those two races, people are probably looking a little more for me.”

Trainer Shug McGaughey used Rosario last summer at Saratoga aboard Orb, and the two-teamed to win their first Kentucky Derby with that horse in May.

“When he came here, I said when he rides here for a while he’s going to get better, and he has,” McGaughey said.

As the second half of the racing season gets going, Rosario said he has allowed himself to think about the prospects of winning his first Eclipse Award as the nation’s top jockey.

“Yeah, I do,” Rosario said. “I’m just trying to work hard. Hopefully, we’ll have the chance at one.”