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.
While his 32 years of experience give him an edge, they don't diminish the inherent risks in horse racing.
"It's a dangerous game," said the Burleigh Manor resident, who is the father of three daughters with wife, Christina. "You're riding 40 miles per hour and so close together that any little mistake can be drastic. We all know that being closest to the inside is the fastest way home, but you can't just take a left turn to get there."
After the break from the starting gate, he said, a jockey's skills and instincts take over.
"It worries me if I think I know the characteristics of a horse and then something changes," he said.
Pino has suffered his share of injuries through the years — broken collarbone, fractured skull, cracked ribs and more — but has never been sidelined for long.
"I've been blessed to have a good career and I've always fought my way back," he said of his ability to recover more quickly after injury than doctors estimated he could.
The weight battle
Pino knows he is waging an off-track fight — one all jockeys face, but that becomes harder with age.
"I weigh the same as I did in ninth grade, but at 115 pounds I'm just about the heaviest (riding weight) I can be as a professional," he said.
The irony that someone so trim keeps Diet Coke in the refrigerator and can't indulge in pizza isn't lost on him. If he weren't a jockey, he would probably carry 140 to 150 pounds on his 5-foot, 5-inch frame, he estimated.
He eats fish and lean chicken, lifts weights and runs on a treadmill and around his neighborhood to keep fit, and it takes constant vigilance to maintain his ideal weight. But years of riding exact a toll, he said.
"You're using your whole body to encourage a horse and the adrenaline is pumping in the heat of the battle," he said. "It's very tiring. When you get off a horse you actually just about fall off."
Multiply that feeling three to five times a day on the average — but as many as nine on some days — and it's easy to see why it's been difficult to stay competitive for 32 years, he said.
John Faltynski, a racing official at Laurel Park who's known Pino since the beginning of the jockey's career, said he recognized his talents the first time he saw him ride.
"He gets the respect of every rider," he said. "They want to be like him and act like him, as well they should. He's very astute and he knows this business."
Still showing up
Pino realizes that he's fortunate to still be riding.
"A lot of jockeys don't make it this far; they just burn out," he said. "But I had obligations to fulfill and I decided I had to keep showing up."
His daughters — Danielle, 24, Victoria, 19, and Evana, 15 — never even rode ponies as children, he said, but enjoyed playing soccer instead. Evana is a sophomore at Centennial High School, which the older girls also attended, and all three went to Centennial Lane Elementary and Burleigh Manor Middle schools.
"Howard County has been a great place to raise a family, and that has made it easy to stay here," he said.
Lately, though, the year-round warm and sunny climate of Florida has been beckoning and Pino is thinking about retiring there to be near his wife's parents.
But first, there's the matter of seeing his name listed as one of the top 10 jockeys in history.
"I'm really hoping to make that quota and I'll do whatever it takes," Pino said, calling the prospect within reach, but still "mind-boggling."
"It's a goal of mine, so I can walk away and be satisfied with what I did."