Jockey Mario Pino recently surpassed Jorge Velasquez to become the ninth winningest rider in North American history, entering the winner's circle for the 6,796th time on June 21 aboard a gelding named “Divined.” The quiet, humble veteran's accomplishment went largely unnoticed, except by those closest to him.
“He's never been one to toot his own horn, so I have to do it for him,” joked agent Steve Hayes. “His professionalism, good attitude and work ethic are what make him an excellent representative of the sport.”
His total number of wins has now risen to 6,801, but Pino still has a hard time describing the emotions encompassing his monumental success. Instead, the 55-year-old rider tells a story:
“Years ago I was having an article written about me and the guy asked me what I wanted to do, what my future goals were,” Pino recalled. “I did say I wanted to be at least in the top ten winningest riders of all time, and that was a while ago. At the time, I got to thinking ‘Wow, I don't know if I can do that, I don't know if I should have said that.'”
“But now it's come to be, so I was real fortunate and blessed to keep myself motivated and keep riding.
Born in Delaware, Pino grew up on a farm surrounded by horses. His father trained show horses for the local jumping circuit, and the farm took in client horses to board as well. Pino and his siblings were raised caring for the animals, cleaning stalls and doing all the chores necessary to keep a family farm running smoothly.
“We learned a lot from the bottom up,” he said, smiling. “I think when you're around horses when you're younger, it gives you a little bit of an edge. You get to be in the brain of the horse, and it makes you a better horseman. You know all the little things that it takes.”
By the time he was 13 years old, Pino knew he wanted to be a jockey. He found jobs exercising Thoroughbreds at Delaware Park and later Penn National before a friend of his father took him to Belmont Park. There, he found a job working for Joe Cantey, trainer of champion Temperence Hill and multiple Grade 1 winners Majesty's Prince and Cox's Ridge.
“That's when I started learning the game of really riding horses and being a good horseman,” said Pino. “You know horses, but you didn't know how the racehorses were. He kind of helped me out. He always would say ‘you're not ready, you're not ready,' because I was anxious to ride.”
Cantey gave Pino some of his first mounts in the afternoons.
“The first time I rode a horse he said to me: ‘when you get done in the jock's room, go back to the barn and walk him.' I didn't think jockeys had to do that, but that's just how he was. So I learned.”
Pino rode his first winner in January of 1979 at Bowie Race Course in Maryland, then got his next two winners in quick succession the following day. He was hooked.
Pino started making a name for himself but was still figuring out exactly what kind of a rider he wanted to be and how he wanted people to see him as a jockey. Pino shared a valet with veteran jockey Bill Passmore for a time, and the man quickly became his idol.
The Maryland Jockey Club honored Pino when he moved into 10th on the all-time jockey wins list in 2012
“When I started riding I was just a young boy, so you kind of look around to figure out who you'd like to be like,” Pino explained. “He was an older gentleman then, and he had a lot of respect around the Maryland circuit. I kind of picked up little things, the way he handled himself. He was always a quiet guy, and he never got upset. He was always even-keeled all the time. So I kind of looked at him like an idol and tried to be like him.”
It seems the lessons Passmore demonstrated struck home, as Pino has long been well-revered by his peers in the jockey's room. Pino earned the George Woolf (2013) and Mike Venezia Awards (2016), both of which are based on character and sportsmanship.
“They're doing the same thing you're doing, and they know what it takes to be in this profession,” Pino said of the jockeys who voted him to those awards. “If they want to honor you with that, it's just over the top. What more could you ask for than an award from the people who do the same thing you do.”
Other than his impeccable character, Pino may be best-known as the regular rider for Hard Spun, second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. The year before, Pino had been riding Sweetnorthernsaint for trainer Mike Trombetta, but an injury forced the jockey out of the saddle as he watched that colt go off as favorite in the 2006 Kentucky Derby (he finished seventh). Pino figured he'd missed his chance.
In 2007, he decided to be based at Delaware Park for the first time in his career.
“I hooked up with Larry Jones, and I was working a 2-year-old for him,” recalled Pino. “He said, ‘This could be your Derby horse.' I'd never been on him before, and I'm going, ‘Okay, yeah great' and smiling, but in the back of my brain I thought well, everybody says that.
“In the beginning, (Hard Spun) didn't really impress me that much. He was a nice-looking horse, a well-bred horse, but the lightbulb hadn't come on yet. Then one day I worked him out of the starting gate and it was just like ‘wow.' We knew he was special.”
The Danzig colt won his first four starts under Pino, but finished a disappointing fourth in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Pino insisted he didn't like the surface, so Jones shipped Hard Spun to Turfway Park where he took the G2 Lane's End (now the Spiral) with ease.
In the Kentucky Derby, Hard Spun took the lead out of the gate and still held it as he hit the top of the lane. Pino didn't think anyone would beat him that day, but Calvin Borel pulled his signature rail-hugging move aboard Street Sense to steal the Run for the Roses; Hard Spun was second.
Later that year, Hard Spun and Pino won the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga, then finished second to Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
“Hard Spun was just a gift,” the jockey said.
Though he had found success in the sport's major leagues, Pino never seriously considered moving his home base away from Maryland.
“My family was in Maryland, my kids were in school, and that's where I rode all my life,” he said. “I never ventured out to go other places, but I just said ‘this is good right here.' The living was good and I was doing well, so I didn't change anything. And I wouldn't change anything now; I don't think I missed out because I didn't go to those places. I've had a great career.”
For the past four years, Pino has ridden the entire meet at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, then taken the winter off to spend time in Florida with his family. When spring rolls around, he picks up a few mounts at Gulfstream Park to get back in shape for Presque Isle.
“I feel good, I have a good schedule now,” said Pino. “It gives me a little time to rest, and come back strong when I do come back.”
The time away from the track helps Pino re-discover his competitive juices, and he always finds himself excited to get back in the saddle come springtime.
“It's like I always said, I love what I'm doing and when it's time to stop I'll miss it,” Pino said. “I see the guys that are ahead of me (on the all-time winningest riders list) and I just tip my hat to them, because I know how hard it is to stay motivated and keep that competitive fire burning. When I don't make a difference anymore, that's when I know it's time to leave.”