When Mario Pino got his first look at his mount for the second race at Laurel Park on a brisk fall afternoon last month, he wasn't impressed.
Sizing up the field of nine, the Ellicott City jockey thought Torcello was unlikely to bring him any closer to his dream of becoming one of horse racing's top ten all-time winners before he retires.
Oddsmakers backed up Pino's instincts, calculating the chestnut gelding's chances of winning at 15-1. Torcello's odds dropped slightly to 13-1 by post time, but he was still a long shot.
Nonetheless, Pino, dressed in turquoise silks with yellow polka dots, prepared for his 39,000th-plus career start on a muddy track Nov. 17, hoping to beat the odds no matter what.
"I always do what I can to get something out of a horse, but I really didn't think he could do it," he said, immediately after he rode Torcello to victory and made his 6,385th trip to the winner's circle. "But he warmed up really good, and he showed me he was going to go easy."
It's just like "Peen," as his industry friends call him, to give the horse credit, those friends say — even though the victory propelled him to 13th place on the all-time win list, breaking a tie he had held with Eddie Delahoussaye, a National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame jockey who retired in 2003.
"Peen is just so natural and so fun to watch," said Frank Saumell, clerk of scales for the Maryland Jockey Club, who had just added his congratulations to the chorus of well-wishers around Pino in the jockeys' quarters at the track.
The triumph didn't especially surprise Saumell, since pulling out wins when they're least expected is what great jockeys like Pino do.
"Everybody here admires him, they really do," he said. "He's one of the classiest people you will ever meet."
At age 50, Pino, who is half Italian and half Irish, is facing no small challenge in his bid to move up to 10th place on an exclusive roster that includes one of his idols: the late Willie Shoemaker, who is ranked third with 8,833 wins.
Pino is 86 wins away from passing Earlie Fires, who holds 10th place with 6,470 career wins. To reach that milestone, he must first surpass Larry Snyder's 6,388 wins and Sandy Hawley's 6,450 wins. All three jockeys have retired.
Number 1 on the all-time win list is Russell Baze, who is still active and has amassed more than 11,400 wins, surpassing his closest challenger by more than 1,800 victories.
"This game is up and down, but I have been fortunate to ride for all the top trainers around here throughout the years," said Pino, who rode Hard Spun to on-the-board finishes in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic. "It seems like every rider I pass is in the Hall of Fame."
On Nov. 7, 2007, Pino became the 15th jockey in North American racing history to achieve 6,000 career wins when he rode Pass Play, a horse trained by his brother Mike, at Laurel Park.
Pino's lifelong love of riding dates back to his childhood in West Chester, Pa., where he rode horses and played sports with his older sister and two younger brothers.
"My Uncle Vic used to always tell me, 'You're gonna be a jockey,'" he recalled of the man who was actually his mother's uncle and worked as an exercise rider at a boarding farm.
His wife's father is a trainer and her sister is married to a jockey, so horse-lovers still surround him.
While Laurel Park is his current stamping ground, Pino apprenticed at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., home of the Belmont Stakes and the third stop in racing's Triple Crown. He came to Maryland at age 17 and won his first race in 1979 at Bowie Race Track.
He owned a 66-acre horse farm in Rising Sun for a couple of years before the stress became too much and he sold it.