A year removed from his decision to leave California and bring his business to the East Coast, jockey Joel Rosario can look back on 12 months of proof he made the right move.
He leads the country in wins and earnings this year, and is expected to contend for the rider’s title at Saratoga Race Course, which would be quite a feather in his cap.
Another feather for an already crowded cap.
The jockey has already won the Kentucky Derby, Dubai World Cup and the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot — all this year.
“I really have had a lot of opportunities,” Rosario said. “To win the Kentucky Derby, to win the Dubai World Cup in the same year, to go to Royal Ascot and win a race, it’s something I feel proud about, and I’m thankful for all the people who gave me a chance. The trainers, the owners. A lot of people. I feel very blessed.
“And my agent [Ron Anderson]. I think he’s No. 1. He’s the one who picks the right horse, he makes the calls and he’s a really good agent. He’s a very nice guy, and like I said, I’m happy to work with him.”
Rosario finished last year’s Saratoga meet, his first full meet in the east, with 29 wins. Early in the meet, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey introduced him to one of his top rides, a 2-year-old named Orb, for a maiden special weight at seven furlongs on the dirt. Orb reared up at the start and spotted the field a good head start, but then rallied for a third-place finish.
McGaughey and Rosario both enjoyed the ride from there, as Orb worked his way into the Kentucky Derby this year and won it by 2 1⁄2 lengths. He was then fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.
Rosario and McGaughey had no history before the trainer named him to ride Orb his first time out.
“Before he came east, I’d had no experience [with him],” McGaughey said. “He obviously came with a big reputation, but it’s a little bit different here than it is in California. There’s not as much speed emphasis here as there is over there. I thought, once he gets to ride with these guys and sees what the style is back here, he’s probably going to go and be one of the top ones, and that’s pretty much what’s happened.”
To make the adjustment, Rosario studied. He kept his eyes and ears open, absorbing everything he could.
“I really watch the races, and I look at the track to see how the track is playing,” he said. “I look at the jockeys and see how they ride, and I listen to the trainers, too. A lot of little things you put all together.
“I took it a little bit at a time. I had ridden with a lot of the jockeys around here before, but never for a meet, never staying for a long time. It was for one race, and you come in and go out. Every day is different, every race is different. I just try to keep learning.”
All those lessons taught him exactly what he needed to know. Exiting Monday’s races, his win total for the year is at 201. He also is leading the nation in earnings after Sunday’s races with $13,742,298. His three wins Monday gave him five at the meet, equaling Javier Castellano and John Velazquez for the meet lead.
“It didn’t take very long, because he had a great meet this winter at Gulfstream, and he was the leading rider and broke records at Keeneland and won five or something opening night at Churchill Downs,” McGaughey said of Rosario’s progress. “It came pretty quick.”
Rosario won 89 races at Gulfstream Park, second to Castellano’s 100. He won 38 races in 16 days at Keeneland.
Now he’s back in Saratoga, where every rider has more opportunities this year since the retirement of Ramon Dominguez, who was forced to hang up the whip after a spill at Aqueduct on Jan. 18 resulted in a fractured skull.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone,” Rosario said before Monday’s card, when Velazquez held a two-win lead on the rest of the colony. “I think you’ve got to have luck to have a chance to win a race. So far, it’s the first week and we’ve got to see what the next couple of weeks will look like. It’s really wide open. Johnny’s the one that’s winning right now. Ramon was always riding a lot of good horses. We feel sorry for him, that he’s not here.
“I’m trying so hard. Hopefully, I can be the one who wins it. That would be very good for my career.”
Another would be a win in the meet’s marquee event. He didn’t have a ride in last year’s $1 million Travers, but this year’s renewal could draw all three winners from this year’s Triple Crown, including Orb, who is training up to the race while maintaining residence in Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.
“It would be very exciting,”
Rosario said. “Everybody at the Kentucky Derby or in Dubai knows about the Travers. If I have the chance to have a horse in the race, that would be great. If I win, it will be that much better. Just to be in the race is something that would be really special to me.”
Regardless of whether he’s standing in the winner’s circle after the Travers or heading back to the jockeys’ room to change for the final race of the day, whether he wins the rider’s title or finishes a couple dozen behind the victor, it will all be part of a banner year for Rosario.
Years like this, though, come to be expected of the best in the game, who can put them up with some consistency. McGaughey said he expects Rosario to become one of those riders, hanging around the top of the wins list at each meet for years to come.
“He’s a young kid, and he doesn’t have a weight problem,” McGaughey said. “He’s got a very good agent, and his work ethic is good. So I think you’re going to see him be around the top for a long time. I don’t know if he’s going to win the kind of races around here that Ramon did, because Ramon stayed here in the wintertime, so he built up such a business. But I think you’ll see him with Johnny and
Javier, Luis Saez and the Ortizes [Irad Jr. and Jose], all are going to be mixing it up for a good while.”