- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

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Finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness Stakes wasn’t good enough to keep Mario Pino aboard Hard Spun for the June 9 Belmont Stakes.

Owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones announced yesterday that veteran rider Garrett Gomez will take over for Pino, the Maryland-based jockey who has ridden Hard Spun in all eight of his career starts, for the final leg of the Triple Crown.

“I’m not really surprised,” Pino said yesterday in a phone interview. “I don’t own the horse. I’m the rider and he had his decisions to make. And that’s fine.”

In the days after the Preakness, Porter was critical of Pino’s ride in the Preakness, feeling the horse was sent to the front too early. Hard Spun was eventually passed by winner Curlin and runner-up Street Sense.

“[Mario] knows a little daylight for Hard Spun is all she wrote,” Porter told the Blood-Horse Web site. “He won’t rate unless he is directly behind horses, in my opinion. … I feel badly for Mario, as he is truly a nice guy, but he made a mistake.”

In Pino’s defense, front-runners Xchanger and Flying First Class stopped running earlier than most expected and, not wanting Hard Spun to lose his momentum, Pino steered his colt outside to avoid traffic problems. That resulted in a third quarter-mile time of 231/5 seconds.

Jones told the Daily Racing Form that he and Porter made the decision together.

Hard Spun came out of anonymity this spring with an unknown owner, trainer and jockey all making their Kentucky Derby debuts. Hard Spun was 3-for-3 as a 2-year old and is 2-for-5 this year. His $882,500 in earnings rank third-best in the nation.

Pino’s agent, Bill Castle, said Pino will continue to be the first-call rider for Jones’ string of horses at Delaware Park. Pino won three races yesterday.

“It was the best horse Mario has ever been on and the horse is going to be worth millions after he is retired,” Castle said. “Mr. Porter owns the horse and he’s the decision maker, but we’ll still be riding for Larry. That won’t change because it’s been a great relationship and it’s been a winning relationship.”

Entering yesterday, Gomez, 35, was second nationally in 2007 earnings (nearly $7.3 million) and had 110 wins in 499 starts. Formerly based on the West Coast, Gomez moved to New York last year. He is currently tied for seventh at Belmont Park with nine victories.

Pino was set to make his Belmont Stakes debut.

“Nobody stays on a horse forever,” he said. “Maybe I can get back on him down the road.”

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