BALTIMORE — Joel Rosario is on the ride of his life.
He is the nation’s leading jockey and has been piling up victories in big races everywhere he goes. He won the $10 million Dubai World Cup with Animal Kingdom in March, then climbed aboard Orb and won the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
“It’s amazing what’s happening, can’t believe it,” he said from Belmont Park this week before heading to Pimlico, where he will try to guide Orb to victory in today’s Preakness. “I’m more excited than nervous. It’s exciting to be there with a horse who has a chance to win.”
Orb is the even-money favorite to beat eight rivals and set up a Triple Crown try in three weeks at the Belmont Stakes.
“That would be something,” Rosario said. “I never thought, at this point, to have a chance like that. But we’ll have to see first. Who knows how the (Preakness) is going to go?”
The 28-year-old Dominican left Santo Domingo about seven years ago and started out in California. He was a force from 2009-11, winning all six of Hollywood Park’s riding titles, three Del Mar titles and two Santa Anita titles. He was among the leading jockeys but wanted more opportunities and better horses so he moved to New York last summer.
It took time to adjust to the different riding styles — jockeys in the East tend to be more patient than out West because the surfaces aren’t as fast as they are in California. He also switched agents from Ron Ebanks to Ron Anderson.
“There were a lot of things to put together, and it wasn’t easy right away,” Rosario said.
Now that he’s got it figured out, he’s a wanted man — in a good way.
“You see a very confident, energetic rider, who in the last six to eight months has gotten to be one of the top guys in his profession,” Orb trainer Shug McGaughey said. “He’s learned more patience now, and it’s showing.”
It sure did in the Derby. It seemed there was no way Orb could make a winning run as the field turned for home, but Rosario waited for the right moment to ask his colt to make his move.
“I thought maybe we were too far back, but I knew (the leaders) were cooking and when he punched the button I knew we were going to be a factor,” McGaughey said.
Rosario rallied Orb from 18 lengths back for a 21/2-length win in the slop at Churchill Downs. He was Orb’s regular rider, but the Derby was the first time he had ridden Orb since the colt’s allowance win in January.
John Velazquez rode Orb to wins in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby because Rosario had other Derby contenders he was riding in Vyjack and Normandy Invasion. When McGaughey said he didn’t think Orb would run in the Fountain of Youth, Rosario ended up on Vyjack. But when Velazquez committed to Verrazano for the Derby, it cleared the way for Rosario to get back on Orb.
“Johnny would have been just fine on him, but we were tickled to death to have Joel back,” McGaughey said.
And why not? Rosario had a terrific first meet at Gulfstream Park, followed it by winning 38 races at Keeneland, and then rode five winners on opening day at Churchill Downs.
“The kid’s riding with all kinds of confidence,” McGaughey said.
And to think, the 5-2 Rosario didn’t even know about horse racing until he was 11. He always wanted to be a baseball player, and dreamed of a pro career. His favorite player was Sammy Sosa, and he roots for the New York Yankees — “especially against Boston.” When he noticed his friends were getting taller and he wasn’t, he decided baseball wouldn’t work. That’s when his half brother, Juan Jiminez, took him to a jockey school, and “I worked so hard to be a jockey.”
“The track is where I live,” he said. “I work every day, and try to do my best.”