Jockey Mario Pino, an Ellicott City resident who has spent most of his career in Maryland, is close to joining horse racing's top 10 all-time North American wins list.
Pino is just one win away from tying Hall of Fame rider Earlie Fires, who is currently at No. 10 with 6,470 career victories. Pino had three chance to tie Fires at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., on Thursday, but he went winless. Pino is scheduled to ride five horses at the track Friday.
Pino, who celebrated his 51st birthday Saturday, set the top 10 as his goal about six years ago.
"At the time, looking at how far away I was [about 470 wins away], I didn't really know if I could make it," he said by phone last week. "I'm a little superstitious and I'm not there yet, but I'm very near.
"I put my foot in my mouth when I said I wanted to be top 10. After saying it, I had to try to do it and doing it, it is special. You feel like you're finally getting somewhere and it makes me feel good, being able to do something I've wanted to accomplish."
Pino has been on a hot streak lately, winning 13 times since Aug. 31.
Fires rode until he was 61, retiring as the No. 9 rider on the top 10 list in 2008. Reached by phone in Arlington Park, Ill., he said he knew he would be caught someday, but he wasn't aware it was imminent.
"I have no hard feelings," Fires said. "I've known Pino for a long time, and I wish him good luck. But being in the top 10, I really didn't ride for it. I rode to make a living for my family. My goal was to be a successful husband and family man, and I've done that."
Despite his joy at the possibility of joining the top 10 all-time in wins, he said nothing yet has replaced what he felt riding Hard Spun in his first Kentucky Derby.
"This almost measures up to the Derby," he said. "But the Derby was something very special. It was just great to ride that horse, and that feeling was unbelievable. Turning for home that day, even though we finished second, you never forget what that felt like."
Seventy-seven wins ago, Pino told Maryland Jockey Club vice president of communications Mike Gathagan he would retire when he reached the top 10, but Pino said he has changed his mind.
"I was 80 wins away when I told Mike I was thinking of retiring when I hit the top 10," Pino said. "But now, my thinking has changed. I'm going to take some time off at the end of the meet. Go to Italy with my family to visit one of my daughters, who is studying there for a semester, and then come back and think about it.
"I wouldn't say I'm going to retire. There's nothing wrong with me. I feel better than I have in a long time. No aches or pains. And I'm doing very well."
In fact, those who have seen him ride, tell him he is riding better than ever. He currently has 78 wins at the Presque Isle meet that runs through Sept. 29. That number is good enough to be tied for second in the jockey standings there, and he is headed for a better season than last year, when he won 82 races.
"There's no reason for me to stop," said Pino, who will be inducted into the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 8. "I'm riding a lot of nice horses, meeting a lot of good trainers. Besides, what else would I do?"