Saturday, June 15, 2013
We Are Family
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 15, 2013—It’s a terrible irony that Ramon Dominguez, one of the game’s great family men, gets to celebrate Father’s Day on the ground when other fathers will be enjoying the races at Belmont Park.
Ordinarily, this would be a normal day for Dominguez, riding in about seven races on the nine race program, five or six of them favorites, half of those the public’s choice just because Dominguez is the jockey.
For fans of the sport in general and Dominguez in particular, Thursday’s announcement was not a major surprise but was as devastating as it was unwelcome. It was what insiders feared. His progress had been steady, but very slow and not good enough.
The brain injury happened at Aqueduct this winter, the result of a spill in which Dominguez was kicked in the head by a trailing horse. How badly was he hit? Hard enough to crack the helmet jockeys wear to protect themselves from serious injuries like this.
Dominguez probably should not have been at Aqueduct at all in January, but filling engagements on the good-horse circuits instead and maybe pick up a winning classics mount.
For all his dominance, he has only a placing in the Derby and Preakness and a show finish in the Belmont in what be any other measure is an astounding career. Fate’s finger is fickle alright, but this clearly was the cruelest cut, one he was fortunate to escape alive.
So there was no Florida or Louisiana for Ramon, riding the best horses on weekends by appointment only. Dominguez always has put family first; otherwise he surely would have moved to New York sooner. His statistics then, and now, are staggering:
He is Saratoga’s all-time meet leading jockey with 66 victories; he’s won three consecutive Eclipse Awards; compiled an across-the-board record of 4,985 wins (19th all-time), 3,855 placings and 3,159 thirds from 21,267 career mounts, earnings of nearly $192 million, (14th all-time), including a single-season mark of $25.6 million set last year.
That’s 11,999 show tickets cashed from 21,267 opportunities, an in-the-money percentage of .564 to accompany his otherworldly career win ratio of 23.4 percent.
Dominguez was the New York Racing Association’s leading rider from 2009-12, winning 20 individual meet titles. His 376 wins on the NYRA circuit four years ago were the most ever by a jockey without an apprentice allowance.
This kind of dominance is not only emblematic of a first-ballot Hall of Fame rider but it earns him inclusion among the sport’s all-time elites.
I never saw Eddie Arcaro in his prime, but saw enough of the celebrated Manuel Ycaza, Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, Braulio Baeza and Laffit Pincay Jr. to know what greatness on horseback looks like.
Then there were the latter-day greats that I’ve became more familiar with; Angel Cordero Jr., Jerry Bailey, Johnny Velazquez, Ramon Dominguez and now Joel Rosario coming up fast on the outside.
What separates these notables from other talented riders is confidence; the faith to make that split-second move, to wait the extra beat--anticipating, knowing, that the hole to victory will open.
The confidence horseplayers have when they bet their money on great riders is a large part of their winning process, getting a leg up because they know their jockey is going to out-think, out-ride, and out-finish those who would separate them from their money.
From the moment Dominguez moved his tack to New York full-time he gave bettors that confidence. They knew that their horse would almost always save ground, have something left for the finish, the race would shape in their favor and their rider wouldn’t be outfinished.
In a game where jealousy is the rule and not the exception, I never met anyone—anyone—who has anything bad to say about Dominguez.
Ramon Dominguez leaves an indelible mark on Thoroughbred racing and his profession… as demonstrated by the respect he earned from his fellow jockeys,” said Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO.
“He’s a world-class rider but he’s even a better person,” said Steve Rushing, Ramon’s agent for 13 years.
“It’s very sad,” Todd Pletcher, “it shows you how dangerous it is… he’s not only a talented rider but a terrific person.”
“He certainly would be one of the best ambassadors the sport could have,” said trainer David Donk.
“He’s one of the most well-mannered, genuinely nice guys you’ll ever meet,” said jockey Rajiv Maragh, “I was in the room with him every day and he always tried to help his peers.”
Two years ago I had a cup of coffee as a horse owner, had fun and even won a race. That day Ramon rode Dubai Connection as if it were a graded stakes, not a $7,500 claiming race. There’s no feeling like winning a race with a horse you own and Dominguez was the difference.
There will be no races to ride in on Father’s Day. He will not have a Gary Stevens-type moment, and in time he’ll live with that. On Sunday he’ll be home with his wife Sharon and the two boys, Alexander and Matthew. They’ve always been his top priority.