- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - An hour after he almost became part of horse racing history, Mario Pino had showered, dressed, packed up his equipment and walked out of the Churchill Downs jockey’s room to greet his wife and three daughters.

The dream of winning the Kentucky Derby almost came true for Pino, Maryland’s all-time winning jockey and suburban Baltimore resident who was making his debut in the world’s biggest horse race.

Asked to reflect on his still-magical day, Pino smiled for the umpteenth time since he first rode the colt Hard Spun last fall.

“The feeling turning for home was, ‘Wow, can this be happening?’” he said

It was happening. Aboard Hard Spun, Pino had been in the lead since the start of the Derby and was still in first place.

But something else was happening, too. Something that would thwart Pino’s dream but not diminish his achievement.

Street Sense, the 2-year old champion in 2006 and Derby post-time favorite, was picking off horses with a move that took him from 17th to third place with a quarter-mile remaining.

Street Sense than passed Sedgefield to take second place. And then he caught Hard Spun.

“As soon as I thought if this could be happening, he went by me,” Pino said.

With that came another laugh. Second-place in the Kentucky Derby, 2 lengths behind the winner? Not bad.

“We moved up another notch this time,” Pino said. “I was on an awesome horse today.”

Pino had 18 family members and friends among the 156,635 fans that flooded Churchill Downs. Mario’s family flew into Louisville on Friday and he took his wife, Christina, to the Mint Jubilee later that night.

Upon returning to the hotel, his oldest daughter, Danielle, said: “I gave him a hug when they got home and he said, ‘I had actually forgot about it for a minute. I said, ‘Yeah right.’”

Yesterday morning, the family had breakfast at their hotel. Danielle, who talks with her father several times a day, instantly recognized this wasn’t just another Saturday.

“I could tell he was nervous this morning,” she said. “When he left after breakfast around 10, I knew by the way he was acting. He was quiet and just looked like he wanted to get things going.”

Mario rode in three races yesterday before the Derby.

The Pinos’ tickets were split up and Hard Spun owner Rick Porter invited Christina to sit with them. But before the post parade, she made her way back to her family.

“I was in another section, but I came back to the other seats because I had to watch this race with our kids,” she said.

Hard Spun, although he hit the breaks for a moment while being led from the backside barn area to the paddock, was calm throughout the post parade.

“I wasn’t nervous because I had confidence in my horse and I felt him relax in the post parade, which was big because I was really worried about that because the crowd can sometimes get him hyper,” Mario said.

Upon watching the replay of the race, Pino was stunned with Street Sense’s racing fortune.

“When I saw the replay, I fell back and said, ‘How can he get through every horse like that?’ ” he said. “If he would have had to go around three, four, five horses, he would have never beaten us.”

Watching from the stands, Christina was yelling herself hoarse “I don’t normally talk like this,” she said afterward and for Danielle, sitting alongside with younger sisters Victoria and Evana, the moment was setting in.

“I was nervous because there were so many horses and I’m not used to that when my dad is out there and there was just so much going on,” she said.

The Pino women greeted Mario in the tunnel between the paddock and race track about 15 minutes after the race. They reunited outside the jockeys’ room. Life is back to normal today for Mario, who is scheduled to have an early flight and then ride at Delaware Park.

“It was a crazy day,” Danielle said. “Everybody was high-strung and nervous the whole day but it turned out to be a great day. Now it’s the Preakness.”

Standing on the track, Hard Spun trainer J. Larry Jones said the Preakness in two weeks is the next logical step.

“You would have to think right now, that’s more than likely,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we brought this horse in off six weeks. We were thinking about a three-race series. We didn’t want this to be the last hurrah.”

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