- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

Veteran Pino gets first run at Churchill Downs

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Pinos are at their best when multitasking.

At her Ellicott City, Md., home Tuesday morning, Christina Pino finalized ticket requests, waited for the air conditioner repair man to arrive and just tried to survive the current frenzy that is her family’s life.

“There’s an excitement and electricity in the air, and it’s going to be sheer madness until Saturday,” she said, ignoring her constantly buzzing cell phone.

A few hours north of home, Mario Pino went about his business, riding at Delaware Park, winning the third race aboard Charlotte’s Di and the eighth race with Sweetdownthelane while constantly looking ahead to Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — aka the biggest day of his racing career.

“Every day I wake up, it’s on my mind, and I think it about it all the time,” he said.

And six hours south of home, Danielle Pino, the couple’s oldest daughter, packed up her North Carolina dorm room and prepared to take math and communications finals today — already having completed two term papers on the Raymond Chandler novel “The Big Sleep” — before driving home tonight.

“I always do better when there’s a lot more going on so I know what I have to get done and when,” she said.

But at 6 p.m. Saturday, the world of the Pinos will come to a halt. For about two minutes, 10 seconds, there won’t be any soccer, lacrosse or basketball games to attend or kids to shuttle to school or phone calls to Chapel Hill.

No, the lone man in the Pino House — even the family dog, Diva, is a female — will take center stage.

At age 45 and in the 28th year of a riding career that is the most successful in Maryland racing history (his 5,891 wins entering yesterday were two short of Jerry Bailey for 15th all time in the sport), Mario Pino will make his first Kentucky Derby appearance with the impressive Hard Spun.

“After riding for so many years, I kind of thought it would never happen and I would never get a chance to ride this kind of horse,” he said. “It’s a dream come true, a great opportunity and, really, a lucky shot.”

A dream Christina calls a shared one.

“It’s not just Mario’s dream; it’s a family dream,” she said. “Jockeys don’t say, ‘I want to ride in the Belmont or Preakness.’ They say, ‘I want to ride in the Derby.’ It’s the same for us. It’s been a little dream in the back of our head, and now it’s here.”

Along for the journey will be 15 to 20 friends and family, including their three daughters: Danielle, 19; Victoria, 14; and Evana, 10.

The best part for Mario is that he isn’t riding an also-ran. Hard Spun, a 3-year-old bred in Pennsylvania, owned by Rick Porter and trained by Larry Jones (both of whom also are making their Derby debuts), is 5-for-6 lifetime, winning his five races by a combined 281/4 lengths. In his final tuneup Monday, he traveled five furlongs in 57.6 seconds, the fastest Derby Week workout since 1979. He will start from post No. 8 and is 15-1 on the morning line.

Family guy

For as long as she could remember, having a father who was an established jockey wasn’t a big deal for Danielle. It’s all she ever knew. It’s all her friends and her friends’ parents ever knew. But then she arrived at North Carolina last fall.

“I came to school here, and people would ask what my parents did, and I would tell them, and some would recognize his name and others would go look him up on the Internet and say, ‘Your dad is a really good jockey,’ ” she said. “That’s when it really hit me.”

Mario has been a really good jockey for nearly three decades. His infatuation with riding began during a trip to the track at age 12.

He grew up with his two brothers and father (his parents divorced when he was young) on a 60-acre farm in West Grove, Pa., near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. Mario was introduced to racing when an employee of his father’s took him to Delaware Park one morning. Watching from the rail, he was hooked as soon as he saw the first horse whiz by.

“I didn’t know anything about being a jockey,” he said. “But I went to the track, and I came home and told my dad, ‘That is what I want to do. It could be really neat.’ ”

His father’s reaction was supportive but also realistic. Pino’s brothers were regular-sized guys, and Mario was expected to sprout up eventually. It didn’t happen.

“When I first started, I thought I would last five or six years tops because I would grow out of it and be unable to keep my weight down,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I figured I would ride as well as I could for a few years. But I never really got tall.”

Pino started riding competitively at age 16 and, like most young jockeys, thought he would spend a couple years in one place, a couple years in another and steadily move up the ladder to set up shop in New York and California, Kentucky and Florida — the premium states for the top-flight jocks. Riding titles at Laurel (1979) and Pimlico (1980) gained him some fame.

But his priorities changed when he met with Christina at a Christmas party 23 years ago. They were married two years later. The long-term strategy of riding in the aforementioned states was traded for a dominating career on the Maryland circuit and the luxury of spending most every night at the family’s home in Ellicott City, halfway between Pimlico and Laurel.

“He was always around,” Danielle said. “Of course, he would be gone sometimes to ride in a race, but I never felt like I was one of those kids whose dad was never home because of their job.”

Off to Delaware

For several years, when the Maryland circuit shut down to accommodate Colonial Downs in New Kent County, Va., the Pinos would spend their summers in a rented house along the James River. Mario won three riding titles at the track.

As Delaware Park increased its purse size through slot machine revenue, trainers started moving their stables north. Three years ago, Pino followed trainer Anthony Dutrow to Delaware.

“It was a good change for me,” he said. “Riding in Maryland is awesome, and living here is awesome, and I was comfortable here. But I went for that opportunity, and it was a great decision.”

The decision became career-changing last year when Pino aligned with agent Bill Castle and started riding horses for Jones, a trainer for 25 years whose summer headquarters are in New York and Delaware.

Last year, Pino worked Hard Spun for Jones one morning and saw the promise. But he wasn’t thinking Derby. Jones was.

“I’ll remember it forever. Before he even worked his first three-eighths of a mile, Mr. Jones said, ‘This might be our first Kentucky Derby horse,’ ” Pino said. “I thought, ‘Everybody says that. How can he say that so early?’ ”

Said Jones: “I’ve never had a Derby horse, but he was doing things I hadn’t had a horse do. My first impulse was that he would probably win his first race going 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Little did I know. He’s a runner.”

Hard Spun won each of his three 2006 starts and started this year with a 6½-length win in Louisiana. The only bump has been a fourth-place finish in the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 19 (as the favorite), which forced Jones to remove the horse from Arkansas Derby consideration at the same track and use the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park as the final prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

Some trainers would have opted for a high-profiled jockey with Derby experience, but Jones said he never considered making a change.

“Mario fits about any horse,” he said. “He’s won a lot of races, and you don’t do that by sitting up there like a bucket of rocks. He’s very smart and has a keen sense of pace. He’s deadly on the front end — don’t give him a head start because he’ll hurt you. They’re both laid back and get along great. There was no reason to make any changes.”

Just because the Derby is a longer race (11/4 miles) and has a huge field (20 horses) doesn’t mean Jones and Pino will make any changes to Hard Spun. Pino expects to be in the first flight of horses entering the clubhouse turn.

Sitting on a sofa inside the Pimlico jockey’s room late last month, Pino talked about the Twin Spires, being in the paddock and riding Hard Spun in the post parade as more than 100,000 people sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“I’ve thought about that because everybody said they get pumped up when that song is playing,” he said. “It’s the ultimate race and the biggest show in our sport. I never thought as a little kid, 12 years old wanting to be a jockey, that I would be in the Kentucky Derby. I read about it and watched it on TV. That’s it. To be in the race and to have a decent horse on top of it is awesome.”



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