Veteran jockey Mario Pino recently became the 64th winner of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. Voted by his peers, the 51-year-old jockey won the award over four finalists, Javier Castellano, Perry Compton, David Flores and Rodney Prescott.
Pino has won at least 140 races every year he’s ridden, he moved into 10th for career wins last year. Sean Clancy caught up with Pino to talk about the road traveled, the road ahead.
SC: What was your reaction when you found out?
MP: It’s a great honor. I was a little bit surprised, I had been nominated four times and hadn’t won it, I thought maybe if I have a chance, it’s this time. It’s special, because it’s the whole jockey community, across the United States, for them to pick me, it makes it really special. You look at all those guys, Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens…to be on that list, to get your name engraved on that George Woolf statue at Santa Anita. It’s a special thing, you’re going down in history.
SC: What’s your approach to life?
MP: I try to treat people the way I want to be treated, no matter who they are, I don’t care if a guy hasn’t won a race or has won 5,000 races, I always try to treat them like an equal. That’s just the way I was brought up. I treat everybody the same, I guess people remember things. You lend somebody boots or a stick or some pants, I might have forgotten about it, they’ll say, ‘Oh, man, thanks for those pants…’ I’ve always said take what you need. I guess people remember the little things.
SC: Did you have to learn that or have you always been like that?
MP: I was born that way. I was always thought I should help out somebody if they needed something. On the racetrack, I always tried to win, the right way. Off the track, you lead by example, I hope I did that with some young riders. It’s a good feeling, guys just starting out, they look up to you, they have to look at somebody, they’re going to look at a guy who’s been around for a while, I hope I’ve done that.
SC: You’ve taken some time off this winter, what’s your plan going forward?
MP: I haven’t ridden all winter, just one race, it’s the first time I’ve had this much time off, because I set my goal to be 10th, I said I’d take all winter off, it’s something I accomplished, I did it and worked hard to do it, it was a good time to relax, reflect on what I did and now I’m ready to start back up there in May. I’m riding a few at Gulfstream, to get my feet wet, get back in the groove and I’ll start full time at Presque Isle in the spring.
SC: How much more do you have in you?
MP: I feel good, I love riding and I love the competition, I don’t want to walk away and when I’m retired say I want to ride more, I don’t want to stop and come back again. I feel good, I feel like I have it in me, I’m in good shape, I’m still fine. I’m finding it like I did years ago, it doesn’t faze me that I’m 51 years old. I’m not broke down, at the end, just hanging on. The experience kicks in too, it’s always a plus when you have that little experience, you’re been there before, you’re more relaxed, knowing what to do and when to do it. I feel like I still have that, I have confidence in myself that I can still ride, I just want to take it time-by-time and see how far I go. As long, as I enjoy it and I feel good, there’s no reason why I should stop.
SC: What has been your approach to the daily grind?
MP: Just staying steady. At times when maybe I didn’t feel like going, I tried to push myself, everybody would say, ‘This guy never stops.’ I always pushed myself, always tried to do the best I can, be prepared for every race I rode, I went out there ready. I don’t care what race it was, what horse it was, if it was the Kentucky Derby or a maiden $8,000, I was prepared for what I was going to do, I won some races because I was prepared. The horses do the running, but a lot of races I won by just knowing where to be and when to move, just being ready, watching the races, watching the bias of the racetracks, those little things that could make you win or make you lose. I never wanted to get beat by not being ready.
SC: How difficult has it been to change circuits to Delaware Park and Presque Isle?
MP: When I went to Presque Isle the first time, I was a little skeptical but I love riding on the Tapeta track, it’s good to ride on, I got up there and was like, ‘Wow.’ I like the track, I had some good outfits, riding for Jonathan Sheppard and other good outfits shipping in. Maryland wasn’t running at that time. I got the opportunity to go up there, I tried it, liked it, and this will by fifth year going back. The opportunity went this way and I took it. When I went to Delaware, that was the only way I got into the spotlight, picking up Hard Spun and horses for Larry Jones. If I never moved out of that spot, it would never had happened, I wouldn’t have moved to that next level. I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to ride in the Kentucky Derby and other Grade I races. Sometimes you’ve got to keep moving, change is good, it was good for me there.
SC: Any regrets?
MP: The only thing, I’m laughing about it but I’m not laughing about it, I wish I had won the Kentucky Derby. That would have been over the top, when I turned into the stretch, I thought I was going to win. I don’t regret anything I did, everything has gone well for me, I’ve been lucky in my career, but if I could have just won that race, but coulda-woulda-shoulda, you know what they say.
SC: What was it like to ride Hard Spun?
MP: Going into his breeding career, he had to win one race, he needed a Grade I win, he needed to win the King’s Bishop. Winning that race was such a relief for me, Larry Jones and Rick Porter. That was a lot of pressure, the last couple of races, the horse was being sold. That was a real pressure situation, but I worked it out, it came out all good, Larry did a tremendous job getting him there, the race came up perfectly for me, he’s a good horse and he won.
SC: What was the Derby experience like?
MP: I’ll tell you, I didn’t know where Street Sense came from, because I was on the lead. Larry Jones used to tell me, ‘Stay on that rail, do not let Calvin Borel come up that rail, whatever you do.’ If you see the reruns, I peek one time on the inside, just to see, at the time, you don’t think about who’s coming or not, but you kind of do, things are going really fast at that time, I peeked and nobody was there, I thought I was going to go on and win, then here he comes flying by me, my heart just dropped down, he was passing me. I only felt one horse coming and that was him.
SC: You say you never get mad, you had to get a little mad after the Derby?
MP: When I walked back to the jocks’ room, I watched the TV and said, ‘Where did he come from?’ Then I see him get inside the whole field and then come out and win, I fell back in my seat, ‘No way a horse could get through a Kentucky Derby field, 20 horses, come from last. How did that happen?’ I’ll give kudos to Calvin Borel, if he had to actually go around, he would have been 10 wide, he never probably would have caught me, I would have just hung on, maybe, or maybe we would have gotten beat a nose. I was a little bummed out, but that’s life, that’s racing. You’ve got to go on to the next thing.
SC: You set a goal to crack the top 10. Do you have a target now?
MP: Not really. I hit my goal to be 10th, there really isn’t a goal after that. I think it’s Edgar Prado, in ninth. I’m going to just ride, enjoy myself, do what I love to do. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be riding today.