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Maryland horse racing has trouble holding its top riders

EquestrianKentucky DerbyPreakness StakesLaurel ParkBarbaroRamon A. Dominguez

In another time, Maryland was a hotbed for horse racing, its history rich and its purses comparable to other states. It was a place where jockeys could make a career and not have to contemplate leaving for New York or California.

Since the late 1980s, and maybe longer, being an up-and-coming rider at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park has been akin to being a burgeoning major league star at Camden Yards. Bigger markets — with longer racing seasons and more lucrative purses — beckon.

Think of a miniature Mike Mussina — with a whip.

Just as Mussina left the Orioles for the Yankees, scores of talented jockeys have left Maryland, including four future Hall of Famers. Chris McCarron and Kent Desormeaux sought the riches and sunshine of year-round riding found at California's Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Edgar Prado and Ramon Dominguez went after the bright lights and big-name trainers at New York's Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga.

Desormeaux, Prado and Dominguez will return this week to Pimlico. Desormeaux will look to add to his total of six Triple Crown victories when he rides locally bred Tiger Walk in the 137th Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Though neither has a mount in the Preakness, Prado and Dominguez will also be back at the aging race track on Park Heights Avenue that was once their proving ground.

Other states have served as feeders for the New York and California racing colonies, but few have spawned as many top-notch riders as Maryland.

"There must be something in the water," Prado joked.

They leave for the same reasons — money, opportunity and the chance to ride in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.

"I was at a point where I wanted to compete at a higher level," said Prado, now 45 and more than a decade removed from his years as one of Maryland's most successful and popular jockeys. "I had a lot of opportunities before, in California and New York, and I thought it was time to take a chance."

It was not so much that Prado had outgrown the competition in Maryland, but he said he needed more of it on a regular basis. With a Maryland racing season that was quickly shrinking — its current 146-day season is nearly 100 days fewer than it was in 1992, less than half of what it is in New York and nearly 200 days fewer than what California schedules each year — Prado knew he had to head to the Big Apple.

It was the summer of 1999 and Prado, who like McCarron had come to Maryland from Massachusetts, went first to Saratoga Springs and then to Belmont. Aside from spending the winter season in South Florida, racing at Calder and Gulfstream, he has remained on the New York circuit ever since.

Looking back, Prado said that he almost stayed in Maryland too long.

"I probably should have left in 1995 or 1996," Prado said. "But I was very happy in Maryland. My family was happy. I was doing well. I was winning something like 300 races a year. I knew I could ride anywhere, but if trainers wanted someone for a big race, they wanted a New York rider or a California rider. They would take the fifth-place guy there than the first-place guy in Maryland."

Asked if he would have had the same kind of career — including two victories in the Belmont Stakes and a historic Kentucky Derby win aboard Barbaro in 2006 — had he remained in Maryland, Prado said, "No way. I never would have been given a chance to ride those horses. It's all about winning, but winning in New York or California is bigger" than winning in Maryland.

Among the most respected jockeys of his generation, Mario Pino is one of the few to have stayed put by focusing his career in Maryland.

Pino, now 50 and closing in on the top 10 in wins all-time, said that he "got the itch" around the time he left to race in his native Delaware in 2007 and then spent a winter in New York in 2009. The connections he made in Delaware led to Pino fulfilling a longtime dream of riding in the Kentucky Derby in 2007, where he finished second on Hard Spun.

"It all seemed to work [in Maryland]," said Pino, whose wife Christina was from Maryland. "I could be home in 15 minutes. I got a little taste of what it's like in New York. It's a tough grind. People have different reasons to go in this direction or that direction. I got to ride some pretty good horses in New York. I got to ride in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. I think I've had the best of both worlds."

Jockey agent Steve Rushing, who brought Dominguez from Massachusetts to Maryland after Prado left for New York, said that places like Pimlico and Laurel are a "great launching pad" but eventually the smaller purses and shorter racing seasons in Maryland prove to overshadow what Prado calls a more "relaxed" lifestyle.

"Once they have success in Maryland, it's only natural for them to go where there's more opportunity," Rushing said.

Dominguez, who spent close to a decade in Maryland and still has a home near the Fair Hill training center, said he got "great exposure" riding at Pimlico and Laurel and that going to New York was just part of the natural progression. Dominguez admits moving to New York put him in the conversation to get "Derby horses" such as Bluegrass Cat, who finished second to Barbaro.

"A lot of times, it has nothing to do with ability," said Dominguez, 35, who's currently second nationally in race earnings and is shooting for his third straight year of leading the country's jockeys. "It's more of a business thing — you need to build relationships and have people trust you. At the end of the day, it's just horse racing."

A new generation of Maryland jockeys are now contemplating making the jump.

They see the huge disparity in the number of mounts those in New York and California get, and the money their horses — and subsequently they — earn. Last year, Sheldon Russell was Maryland's best jockey, but his $4.2 million in earnings was 53 spots behind Dominguez, who led the country with more than $20 million. It didn't hurt that Dominguez had 1,408 starts, compared to only 901 for Russell.

Rosie Napravnik, who first rode at Pimlico as a 17-year-old apprentice in 2005, became the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks earlier this month. She is currently the leading jockey at The Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The Louisiana-born, London-raised Russell, now 24, followed British trainer Michael Dickinson to Fair Hill five years ago and just got his first Kentucky Derby mount.

Though Maryland-based Done Talking finished 14th out of 20 horses at Churchill Downs, Russell said the atmosphere of the Derby "made me think" about leaving Maryland someday. It might be a more difficult decision for Russell, 23, if Maryland had summer racing on Laurel Park's turf track. He thinks it would make a difference for trainers who take their horses to Saratoga.

If the influx of slots revives Maryland's faltering horse racing industry, Pino can see a day when Maryland returns to its racing roots, including what he called "a deep colony" of jockeys similar to what it had when he was coming up. Dominguez can see a time when the best jockeys in Maryland might stay put.

"Maryland can be a great state for horse racing, for everyone," Dominguez said. "But right now horse racing all over the country is kind of survival of the fittest."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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