First published December 2008.
Quietly, almost anonymously, jockey Ramon Dominguez slipped into New York and won two Grade 1 stakes in a little more than an hour at Belmont Park and then drove back with his family – his wife Sharon and their two toddlers – to their home on their 400 acre farm in Elkton, Maryland, near the Delaware border.
It’s hard to conceive that the Venezuelan jockey is not on most people’s radar screens. He’s led the country in victories in 2001 and 2003 and won the 2004 Isaac Murphy Award for the nation’s highest winning percentage (28.4). He was second in victories and fifth in earnings in 2006, and he’s had just as much success in 2007 – ranking second in victories and sixth in earnings. At the high profile, six week Saratoga meet, he finished fourth with 28 victories, riding at least one winner for 16 different trainers, documenting the effectiveness of his long-time agent, Steve Rushing. Dominguez also had 29 seconds and 26 thirds from 212 mounts and earnings of nearly $1.8 million. The would be a good year for many riders.
Yet by remaining based on the Delaware/Maryland circuit instead of New York or California – aside from Saratoga and the winner meet at Aqueduct the last couple of years – Dominguez is racing’s least known superstar.
“I think it’s only the result of the circuit that he follows”, said trainer Graham Motion, who has used Dominguez extensively the last few years and provided him with their first Breeders’ Cup starter and first winner, Better Talk Now. “I have as much confidence in him as anybody”.
So does trainer Tony Durrow, who has given Dominguez live mounts in Maryland, Delaware, and New York. “He and I have had a lot of success together”, Darrow said. “It’s my opinion that Ramon is certainly among the elite riders in the horse business”.
Would Dominguez’s business be even better in New York full-time? “The opportunity has been there for me the last couple of years”, he said. “The things that keeps me from going to New York full-time is the quality of life I can provide for my family being in Delaware and Maryland. I absolutely love New York racing, but outside the track, I really like the life I have in Maryland”.
Hall of Fame jockeys Chris McCarron, Kent Desormeaux and Edgar Prado all enjoyed Maryland, too. All moved on to larger venues after dominating Maryland. Actually, Prado accelerated Dominguez’s career when he moved on to New York full-time in 1999/2000, allowing Dominguez to connect with Rushing, Prado’s former agent. “Obviously I thought he was someone who had a lot of potential”, said Rushing, who had been Dominguez’s agent for seven years and counting. “He was young with a lot of ability and a bright future”.
Will his future be in New York?
“He knows that his career would do better if he moved to New York”, Durrow said, “But he’s very happy with his family life the way it is. What I tell him is that the inevitable is going to happen and he will be drawn to New York. He will end up in New York”.
He began riding in Caracas, Venezuela, the oldest of four children in a family which has remained close to this day.
“I asked people what kind of person he was and everybody said he was a great person”, Rushing said. “The best way I can describe him is he’s a world-class rider and an even better person. He’s very close to his mother and father, and brothers and sister. He’s a great dad; he a great dad; he’s a great husband. I don’t think you could find anyone better. He has respect for everybody”.
Maybe it was in his genes.
His father worked for the social security commission, then worked at an off-track betting site. His mom was a school teacher. Neither parent was thrilled when Ramon declared that he decided what he wanted to do with his life. “I said I wanted to be a jockey”, Ramon said. “I was 13 or 14. They said it was too dangerous, that people get kicked. They say don’t you do show jumping?
He did for a year, before he learned that there was a Thoroughbred training center nearby. Ramon began working there without telling his dad. “I did it for a week without telling him, and he found out”, Ramon said. “But my dad was okay with it. He started taking me there”.
His family has shared Ramon’s success as a rider: Marie-la, his sister who is a dentist in Italy, Marielena, who works for an insurance company in Venezuela, and his brother Alfredo, who works with computers all follow Ramon’s career closely. “We talk to each other on a daily basis”, Ramon said. “My family is extremely close. They’re very happy with my victories and sad when things don’t go well”.
There hasn’t been a lot to be sad about since Ramon began riding at La Rinconda Racecourse in Caraca before moving to the United States.
Yet at one crucial, early point in his career, he wondered if he would ever win a single race. “It was a defining moment in my career”, Dominguez said. “I was riding back home. When I was a bug boy, I rose a very good horse, much, much the best. Through thinking I know what I was doing, I moved the horse too early. I opened up 15 lengths, something ridiculous, and he got beat by a neck. I moved too soon, I did the opposite of what I should have done. There was another bug rider that beat me. When I came back, everyone was so critical of me. I started crying, I thought I’d never win a race. I was 17. It taught me a lot. It taught me to be patient. I learned from that”.
He hasn’t stopped learning. After he won 53 races at La Rinconda, Dominguez moved to the US and began riding at Hialeah, winning his first US race in Moondance in March, 1996.
“Earlier in his career, he was a bit out of control”, Durrow said. “He polished his act up (in about) a year and a half and he really got it right. He’s very confident, very patient. He rides a smart race. Horses relax very well for him. He does not get horses in trouble”.
Most of the time: not all.
Better Talk Now has provided Dominguez with his biggest thrill, winning the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star Park with his patented late run at nearly 28-1. But the first time Dominguez rose him was a disaster.
By 2002, Dominguez had already distinguished himself as a top rider. His victory total had hiked from 121 in 1999 to 360 in 2000, third highest in the country, and then to a national best 431 in 2001, only his sixth season in the US.
He missed four months of riding in 2002 because of a broken wrist suffered at Delaware Park, before landing the most important mount of his career on December 28th, 2002, at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Better Talk Now, then a three-year-old, was entered against 10 rivals in the Wood-chopper Handicap. Coming off two allowance victories under Eibar Coa and Padro, Better Talk Now would go off the 6-5 favorite under Dominguez, despite wearing front bandages for the first time.
That wasn’t Dominguez’s problem. This one-run closer was a handful before the race began and during the race, too. “He gave Ramon a hard time”, Motion said. “Basically, he ran off with Ramon in the post parade. In the race he was unmanageable”.
Usually, early speed types get rank, not deep closers. But nobody told Better Talk Now that. Breaking from the nine post, he got away sixth, then took off after the lead. He got very rank with me”, Dominguez said. “I took him into the clear. He was very difficult to handel”.
Better Talk Now battled on the lead, then tried to finish eighth by six lengths. “I didn’t know the horse he would become”, Motion said. “My worst nightmare is that he’ll do it again in a race. I have flashbacks. Absolutely”.
But Motion didn’t hold Dominguez responsible for Better Talk Now’s erratic effort. After winning two more allowance races under Prado, Better Talk Now returned to stakes company under Dominguez in the Eight Thirty Stakes at Delaware. Stalking the pace, Better Talk Now won by a neck.
Dominguez, though, wasn’t aboard again for his next eight starts, which included just one win, a half-length score in the Grade 2 Knickerbocker Handicap at Aqueduct with Prado riding.
Knickerbocker Handicap regained the mount when Better Talk Now was entered in the mile-and-a-half Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga, August 14th, 2014. He’s been on him ever since.
Saratoga gave Better Talk Now a masterful ride, saving ground early and exploding late to win by a length and a quarter at nearly 8-1 in a field of six.
In his next start, the Grade 1 Man O’ War Stakes at Belmont Park at a mile and three eighths, Better Talk Now rallied four wide and finished fourth by four lengths to Magistretti.
The performance didn’t impress bettors, and Better Talk Now went off at 28-1 in the mile and a half Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf in a field of eight. A distant seventh early, Better Talk Now uncorked a sensational five-wide move on the final turn to win by 1 ¾ lengths.
“It was a great experience, not only winning the race, but the way the race was run”. Dominguez said. “It was unbelievable. The race shaped up great for him. At the half-mile, they opened up in front of me. I took advantage of that. It paid off. It made him finish up even stronger”.
Dominguez also had great success Bluegrass Cat, which he raced to a second-place finish in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, for trainer Todd Pletcher. “That was an unbelievable feeling”, Ramon said. “I really thought at the half-mile pole I could win it. Bar-baro was just better off that day”.
Pletcher is one of many top trainers who continue to use Dominguez. At Belmont Park, and hour after Dominguez rode Fabulous Strike to an easy victory in the six-furlong Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes for Trainer Todd Beattie, Dominguez boarded Pletcher’s Unbridled Belle in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes at a mile and an eighth. Unbridled Belle overcame a rough trip to edge her Pletcher stable-mate, Indian Vale, by a head at the Beldame. Pletcher’s go-to guy, John Velazquez, rode Indian Vale.
So business is just fine with Ramon the way it is. He followed his solid Saratoga meet this year by winning eight of 31 mounts at Belmont Park on periodic excursions; won on three of 15 mounts at Keeneland, and, he had several wild mounts at the Breeders’ Cup at Monmouth. His best finished was a third beaten by a length on Passage of Time, the 5-2 favorite in the $2 Million Filly and Mare Turf. In the Turf, Better Talk Now, who had finished first in the race in 2004, seventh in 2005 and second by half a length in 2006, hadn’t raced because of a minor injury, but rallied to be fourth, a performance good enough to push him over the $4 million mark in career earnings.
Connecting with such outstanding horses would undoubtedly be easier to do in New York if Dominguez was there full-time. “It’s something we talk about”, Rushing said. “Right now, we’re very happy to do what we’re doing. We spend seven, eight months here in Maryland and Delaware. Right now, we’re very content doing things this way”.
“Only time can tell”, Ramon said. “Maryland doesn’t have slots. You hear that New York racing is going to an even higher level. Some of these decisions are made for you. If the conditions are right…But being able to raise my kids in a place where they are happy, it means a lot more than winning races. I could look back and regret that, but I don’t think that’s going to happen”.
His families would likely agree.
UPDATE: Ramon retired in 2013 after sustaining a head injury from a fall. He did end up relocating to New York full-time, and is still heavily involved in the horse racing industry. To catch up on all of Ramon’s incredible accomplishments since the time of this publication in print, check out his biography on his website, ramondominguez.com