SARATOGA SPRINGS – He tried everything.
But the realization set in: “Oh, shoot, I’m in trouble.”
Still, Ramon Dominguez was able to coax his horse, Alpha, just enough to catch Golden Ticket and earn a dead-heat share of first place, a perfect illustration of the talent and timing in a big race that made Dominguez the top jockey in North America three years running, as selected by Eclipse Award voters.
This was Aug. 25, 2012, in the $1 million Travers at Saratoga Race Course. Less than a year later, Dominguez, then 36, would never race again, having suffered a brain injury in a spill during a race at Aqueduct.
But what if you become the horse?
Desperately craving some outlet for his competitive spirit, Dominguez, who was inducted to the National Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, turned to running.
And not just for fitness and health. He’s really good at it.
Now 45, Dominguez, who lives in Saratoga Springs with his wife Sharon and sons Alex and Matthew, is still active in Thoroughbred racing in a variety of ways, but has also been able to feed his urge to race by using his own two feet.
What he has discovered is that what he lost at Aqueduct that day in January of 2013 was still out there, but in a different form.
“It’s incredible,” Dominguez said last Wednesday, after a 7 a.m. workout on the track at Skidmore College. “The comparisons are so, so many, from different perspectives, different areas of the sport. You absolutely run like you are everything.
“As a jockey, I can see the irony of certain things. Like I was always trying to keep my horse happy, where he was comfortable. But when it was time to run, I was basically convincing him that, hey, you still have more to give, let’s go. Now, I have to be the horse, and when my mind is telling me, ‘You’re done’ … no, you’re not done. You need to keep going.”
So it was Travers Day again, on Aug. 27 of this year, and Dominguez finished first, but not in the Travers.
He won the Altamont 5k that morning, then was in the Saratoga Race Course winner’s circle in the afternoon, in a suit jacket and holding a microphone for a Spanish-speaking YouTube channel called Exacta Box.
Dominguez won the Altamont race in 16:55 (a sub-5:30 mile pace), two seconds ahead of Chuck Terry of Albany, a long-time mainstay in the upper echelon of Capital Region runners.
Other races on Dominguez’s schedule this fall include the Greenwich Fire Department Fit for Duty 5k on Oct. 1 and the Troy Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving.
He was second in the Greenwich race last year and ran a 16:40 at the 2021 Turkey Trot as the top finisher among male masters.
I ran into Ramon at the Belmont Stakes in June, and at the time he was dealing with a stress fracture in his foot from a race the day after the Kentucky Derby three weeks prior, but he’s back to full health now, as the Altamont race showed.
“Even though I was fit and was a professional athlete at the same time, I feel like we’re using our body in a different way that I never did before,” he said.
Dominguez trains about 37 miles a week, usually an easy five miles a day except for two workouts on the track and a long run of seven miles.
He gets his workout schedule from Bob Lane, who coached the Argyle High School girls’ cross country team to New York State Class D championships in 2002 and 2003.
Dominguez puts in the work and is highly motivated, but his success is still a little hard to comprehend based on how he approached running when he was winning nearly 5,000 races as a jockey.
“During my riding career, running was a way of losing weight,” he said. “I’d typically run one mile. Plastic suit on. Run really slow. Actually, the slower, the better, because all you want to do is sweat. And that was it.
“When I retired from riding, after awhile I started going for a run, and it would be a mile. I remember increasing it to two miles, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I felt like it was a big deal.”
Dominguez’s racing experience as a runner had been a few haphazard events.
A native of Venezuela who spoke little English, he came to North America to ride in 1996, at Hialeah Park in Florida.
He roomed at the home of a groom and his wife, and couldn’t help but notice that the groom went for long runs before and after his shift at the track. Turns out it was Ronnie Holassie, who ran for Trinidad and Tobago at the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics.
“Little did I know that that guy was a marathon runner, and I lived with him for two years,” Dominguez said. “At that time I remember one day I rode at Gulfstream Park. I mean, just clueless. After reducing [weight] all day, and then I went and ran a race near Hialeah called The Festival of the Lights. And I ran respectably. It was an 8k, I think, and I ran in a half an hour, six-minute mile.”
Dominguez eventually rose to the New York Racing Association circuit.
He shakes his head in memory of a race he ran at Eisenhower Park next to Nassau Coliseum.
“Crazy. I remember going for lunch with my family. I said, ‘Oh, in an hour, yeah, I’m going to run in this race,’” he said with a laugh. “No clue. I called the guy [race director], I’m lost, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I paid for your registration.’ So I got there on time, ran the race and won the race in 19:15. I was dying after the race. They gave me a trophy, and that was it.”
Naturally, the hardware from winning road races pales in comparison to, say, the Travers trophy.
Purse money? Forget it.
“Nothing will really replace riding a race,” Dominguez said. “But this is something that I absolutely get a huge thrill out of. When you rode in the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup, you were fully aware that there was a lot of money on the line, but more than anything it was the effort it took to get to the moment, and the prestige and the validation, all the great things attached to winning those kind of races. Because that’s what you train for on a daily basis.
“Now, in a foot race, I don’t get anything, and when I get a little plaque that says I won, I love it, and I have it in a little corner piece in my house. But it’s more of a personal satisfaction that, wow, I did well, or I improved from my previous time.”
Dominguez was at the height of his career when he was forced to retire as a jockey.
He keeps his hands on the sport as president of the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America and as a board member and consultant for a variety of organizations.
His feet? They’re not in the irons anymore, but they do provide horsepower.
“It took me awhile to explain to her [wife Sharon], because we’re always busy doing stuff, and she’s like, ‘I don’t know how you have over an hour every day to do this,’” Ramon said. “It feels like if I was telling her I was going to go and play poker, you know? I say, ‘Listen, there’s so many benefits.’ I love seeing that I’m still fit, that I’m maintaining my body in good form.
“But I said, ‘You don’t get it. Mentally, there is no option. I need to do this because it keeps me sane. I absolutely love it.’ This is my meditation. And running a race and doing well in a race is the greatest high. It’s amazing. Get used to it. When I ran the Malta 5k last week, she surprised me that she was there with our little dog. So, yeah, she understands right now that this is very important to me.”
CATCHING UP …
… With myself.
Yep, we’re starting this monthly column as a platform to compile and spotlight some of the stories and people from what, as always, is a thriving running community in the Capital Region.
I’ll leave much of the high school and college angles to the daily publications, but will welcome ideas and suggestions, if you see something interesting out there on the roads. Email is [email protected]
In the meantime, it seemed like a good time to get off my butt and start running myself again, after an almost three-month “break” that happens every year when the above-mentioned Saratoga Race Course meet comes around.
The good news is I’m a sound racehorse right now, if not a fit one. So I re-introduced myself to the bikepath between Aqueduct Road and Maxon Road Extension last week and expect to be tackling my favorite hill, up from the Rexford Bridge to Riverview Road, soon.
The last past performance line in the racing form shows a 17:36 in the Irondequoit Fourth of July two-mile fun run, a family tradition, with the short comment reading “Empty, no factor.” Happy to report that my nephews Aaron and Shane both smoked me for the first time.
I don’t have any specific race picked out, but we’ll get there.
The important thing for now is to get back into a routine
And to that caterpillar I passed the other day (yes, it was moving in the same direction I was): I own you.
Just a couple reminders, but two biggies are on the horizon, the Oct. 9 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon and the Nov. 13 MVP Healthcare Stockade-athon.
According to the MHR Marathon site, runners should expect a short detour due to construction in Cohoes that will be marked with cones and manned by course marshals. …
The Gazette’s Indiana Nash had a story last weekend about a book signing at the Open Door this Sunday with the Evans family of Middle Grove.
The book is about their adventure running cross country, with dad Shaun pushing son Shamus in his racing wheelchair, and I’m looking forward to picking up a copy.
The book signing is noon-1:30 p.m. …
Speaking of books, Tom Bulger is putting together a history of the Turkey Trot and how it has become a part of Troy lore.
He asked me and a bunch of other area writers to supply some memories, and although I’ve only covered the race a few times, I’ll do my part. It’ll include a reference to a lobster fight. If you’re wondering how/why, you’ll just have to get Tom’s book when it comes out next year.