- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

BALTIMORE — It started last week when a Hall of Fame trainer called Mario Pino’s agent, inquiring about his availability to ride a horse for him at Delaware Park.

And it will continue next week if Pino and Hard Spun can follow up their second-place Kentucky Derby finish with a win in tomorrow’s Preakness Stakes.

The chief by product of Hard Spun’s success — and there will be many if the colt keeps this up — is Pino becoming an A-list jockey on the East Coast 28 years into his career.

“That could possibly happen,” he said. “They’re seeing me ride in the spotlight races, and every trainer and owner is watching.”

What every trainer and owner is seeing is a veteran rider making all the right moves.

Before the Kentucky Derby, he worked Hard Spun five furlongs in 57 3/5 seconds — a wise decision because it allowed the horse to stretch his legs five days before the race.

At the start of the Derby, he allowed Hard Spun, who has a naturally high cruising speed, to get the early lead. It was the proper call because it meant the colt didn’t lose early momentum and didn’t have to encounter traffic trouble.

And through the race’s second turn, Pino made sure Hard Spun was on the rail. This was the perfect decision because Street Sense lives on the rail and even though he eventually passed Hard Spun, he had to veer out slightly.

“He knows what this horse can do because he’s been on him since before he started racing,” trainer Larry Jones said. “He has my blessing to do whatever he feels right.”

Trainers on the East Coast like Jones have always known about Pino, whose 5,899 wins are No. 15 among North American jockeys. Now owners who watch the Triple Crown races also might be fine with their trainers using Pino instead of long-time New York riders like Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, etc.

“I hope it happens that way because he can ride with the best there is,” said Bill Castle, Pino’s agent. “We would be very willing [to travel more] with the right circumstances.”

Although Pino is unlikely to leave the Delaware-Maryland circuit, Castle didn’t rule out making trips on weekends for the big stakes races.

But before the Summer of Intrigue begins, Pino has the Preakness — the third time he’s been in the race. As the second favorite, Hard Spun will again face Street Sense and Curlin.

Last month, while watching a race from the Pimlico clubhouse, Jones said Hard Spun’s best chance at winning a Triple Crown race would be the Preakness because of the distance (1 3/16 miles), because of the long run to the first turn (ideal for Hard Spun, who has a high cruising speed) and because of Pino’s familiarity with the track’s nooks and crannies.

“We feel like he’ll love this track,” Jones said that day. “If the racing fairy had told me we were going to win a classic, I would say the Preakness would be our best shot.”

Pino hopes to cash in on that local knowledge. Hard Spun is the second betting favorite (7-2).

“It’s definitely a little edge, just like Calvin [Borel] maybe had an edge riding Street Sense at Churchill Downs with confidence,” Pino said. “I’ll have confidence at Pimlico because I’ve won thousands of races there and I know when the turn comes, when the mile mark comes and when other things come.”

At Churchill Downs (entering yesterday), Borel was 751-for-5,275; Pino was 0-for-3.

At Pimlico, Pino was 1,767-for-11,037; Borel’s first race at the track will be today.

“There’s not anything I can tell him but ‘good luck,’” Jones said. “We have the horse ready, but this is Mario’s game. He knows what this horse can do. He has my blessing to do whatever he wants.”

What Pino did a few summers ago was move his summer business to Delaware Park, which was benefiting from the introduction of slot machines. It was there that he aligned with Castle and met Jones, for whom he rides regularly.

What Pino did for more than two decades was stay in Maryland and watch jockeys like Prado and Ramon Dominguez move north to New York for stellar careers.

“I knew when they left, they would skyrocket,” Pino said. “I was mostly second to them all the time. They were more in the limelight and I was always second.”

Come tomorrow around 6:15 p.m., in a field that includes Prado, Dominguez and other top riders, Mario Pino may be first. Finally.

“Being in the Preakness is great and obviously a dream for Mario” Castle said. “But actually winning it would be even better.”

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