07/20/2010 11:48AM

Young trio of jockeys figure to battle for Del Mar riding title


Joel Rosario had a dream season at Del Mar in 2009, winning the riding title with an easy 22-victory cushion over Tyler Baze.

Rafael Bejarano won the 2008 Del Mar riding title, but his 2009 meeting was a nightmare. He suffered a facial injury in a gruesome spill on opening day, missed more than a month of the seven-week meeting, and wound up riding just 26 races, winning six.

Baze himself missed nearly two weeks of the 2009 Del Mar meeting because of a broken pinkie when he was unseated in a post parade in mid-August.

This summer, the trio approach Del Mar in good health and outstanding form, and were the first three finishers in the jockey standings at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting that ended on Sunday. Rosario won the title with 79 wins, 4 more than Bejarano and 16 more than Baze.

Each is of the mindset he can win the riding title during the 2010 Del Mar meeting.

Rosario, 25, hopes the momentum that led to his Hollywood Park title will continue.

“I’ve been working hard and trying to be leading rider,” Rosario said. “Last year, I won the meet at Del Mar. I’m trying to get it this time, but it’s hard to win the title.”

Baze, 27, has been busy in recent mornings working horses for top trainers Jerry Hollendorfer and John Sadler, hoping that connection will lead to an excellent start in the first weeks of the meeting. “It’s something to look forward to, especially with the business I’m having right now,” he said.

Bejarano, 27, may be the most eager of them all for the start of Del Mar, considering the events of 2009. “I didn’t have too much luck,” he said. “This year, with the right opportunities, I can win the title.”

Staying healthy is key. Bejarano returned for the final days of the 2009 meeting, but the meeting was essentially a lost cause. Baze missed 13 days, but returned in time to win two graded stakes, including the closing day Palomar Handicap on Gotta Have Her.

Baze was riding at less than 100 percent after the injury, he said.

“It was one of those injuries that was little but it was lingering,” Baze said. “It wasn’t as easy to ride as it looked. I had to pick and choose what I wanted to ride. It meant a lot for people to stand by me.”

The injury later required surgery that kept Baze sidelined for most of November and December of 2009. He tied for sixth at the Santa Anita winter meeting earlier this year with 45 wins, nearly half of the 91 that Bejarano recorded on his way to a title. Rosario was second at that meeting with 70 wins.

“When I got back to Santa Anita, I could use it fully,” he said of his pinkie.

Similar to other riders in the jockeys’ room, Baze has been chasing Bejarano and Rosario since early 2008. The last jockey other than those two to win a riding title at a major meeting in Southern California was Garrett Gomez, at the 2007 Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. Baze’s most recent title came at the 2007 Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting.

The three riders say their rivalry is friendly, but competitive.

“Rafael is one of my friends, too,” Rosario said. “In the race, we’re not friends. It’s a business.”

Baze says all the riders have to get along, facing each other constantly each day while sharing the same locker room.

“It’s definitely competitive,” Baze said. “I’m an easy-going guy, but in races I’m very competitive. When we leave the jockeys’ room, it’s a business. We’ve got to live with each other more than we do our families, it seems like.”

Sunday, when Rosario clinched his title, Bejarano was quick with praise, and philosophical about finishing second. “He deserved the title,” Bejarano said of Rosario. “He worked hard. I can’t win all the meetings and I’ve had a good meet.

The race for the Del Mar title could take until the closing day, Sept. 8, to sort out.

As a result, the three jockeys, as well as their closest pursuers – Martin Garcia, 25, and Joe Talamo, 20 – must keep a regular presence in the stables each morning to maintain their status. A jockey who skips workouts will lose key mounts. At the same time, the younger riders face pressure from veterans such as Victor Espinoza, 38, Martin Pedroza, 45, David Flores, 42, and Mike Smith, 44, for leading mounts in major stakes.

Success at Del Mar can lead to career-defining results. Last summer, Rosario regained the mount on the California-bred gelding Dancing in Silks and rode him to four consecutive wins through late summer and fall, ending with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita.

The momentum from 2009 gave Rosario his first Kentucky Derby mount earlier this year. He finished fourth on Make Music for Me. Earlier that day, he won the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on Mona de Momma.

“When I went to the Kentucky Derby for the first time and finished fourth, it was great,” Rosario said. “Not many people do that. That was a big part of this year when you have a chance to ride in one of the most important races in the United States. Maybe I can win it next year.”

Before Rosario started winning meet titles, those opportunities did not exist.