03/31/2004 12:00AM

Someday King of Maryland will abdicate


LAUREL, Md. - Edgar Prado was 32 and on a decade-long run of dominating Maryland racing when he transferred to the New York circuit.

Kent Desormeaux was 21 with an Eclipse Award and a season record for victories when he broke the chains here and moved to California.

Chris McCarron was 23, also with a record (the one Desormeaux broke), and four years of reigning supreme when he opted for California's testing circuit.

They were all in their prime, ruling the Maryland jocks' room, and facing a decision. When they made it, they never looked back. But plenty of other riders have left and limped home.

So when do you leave the safety of home for the challenges of the road?

Ramon Dominguez faces that question. He's 27 and soaring on the Maryland-Delaware circuit.

The infield toteboard at Laurel Park said it all.

"Congratulations Ramon Dominguez, North America's winningest rider for 2003."

Dominguez won more races than any jockey in 2001 and 2003. Last year, his 453 victories accounted for more than $11 million in purses, eighth in the country. His 28 percent strike rate was the best among the top 10 jockeys in money earned. He won the Laurel winter meet that concluded Sunday - his sixth title in Maryland - 35 wins in front of runnerup Jeremy Rose, and now is riding at Pimlico.

Dominguez has dabbled in big races, winning the Meadowlands Cup last year on Bowman's Band and traveling for various stakes mounts.

But if the question is burning a hole in Dominguez, it was hard to see last week as he paused before the third race at Laurel.

"Quite honestly, that's not in my plans any time soon," Dominguez said when asked about moving his tack. "I hope it's something that I have to face eventually, to go to what they call the big leagues. Like anyone else, I'd like to be a better-known rider and ride better horses. I'm very happy in the area that I'm in now. I feel like I can work on building a name for myself for another few years."

So far, it's hard to fault any of Dominguez's timing. Whether it's the original move to leave Venezuela as a 19-year-old bug boy, or the move from Florida to Delaware in 1998, or any of his moves on horses in the afternoon, Dominguez has been nearly perfect in his pursuit of becoming a top-class jockey.

But once you make the first step off the cliff - in Dominguez's case, leaving Caracas for Miami - the rest is easy.

"It was the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life," he said. "I come from a very close family. The thought of leaving them was very hard, and then finding myself alone here was even tougher. You always have in the back of your mind that you're doing it for your own good and their own good as well. That makes me feel good, but it's never easy. You never get to the point where you can say, 'Oh well, that's over.' You miss them every day."

Dominguez left Venezuela for one reason - to be a jockey. He'll leave Maryland for one reason - to get on the best horses in the country.

"As far as racing goes, coming to the U.S. wasn't tough at all," he said. "It's anybody's dream to come here, especially racing-wise; it's the best. Leaving Maryland will probably be in the same spectrum, the same level, as leaving Venezuela. It will be that big a move."

With agent Steve Rushing calling the shots, Dominguez has carved a lucrative niche on the mid-Atlantic circuit. He rides for almost every outfit in Maryland, picks up the best shippers, and travels for trainers like Graham Motion and Michael Dickinson. He won the Private Terms Stakes on local 3-year-old star Water Cannon on March 27. But the question is always out there - when is he going to leave?

"I will know," he said. "I know it's not now. It's not that I don't feel like I'm capable of competing against the best, but I just don't want to make any premature moves. I can still see room for improvement, and I can build on being more prepared. You're constantly correcting yourself, whether it's style or seeing how a race develops."

Top Maryland trainer Dale Capuano doesn't think there is much for Dominguez to improve upon.

"He could probably leave whenever he wants to; it's basically up to him," Capuano said. "He's got these guys over a barrel most of the time. If you win 400 or 500 races here, it's a good living. He's a worker. He's a nice guy. He rides smart races. He's low-key. He's okay."

And his days on the local circuit are numbered, even if he's not crossing out calendar squares - yet.

"I guess when the moment comes, it won't be so much where you want to be but where you should be," Dominguez said. "When the time comes, I hope I can make that move."