Kentucky Derby

Mark Story: Jockey Rosario finds way back to Orb for first Derby win

Orb, with Joel Rosario up, won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday on a muddy track at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Orb, with Joel Rosario up, won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday on a muddy track at Churchill Downs. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Right now, Joel Rosario is the guy who can't lose for winning.

Early this winter, after riding Orb for the first five races of his career, Rosario found himself off the promising 3-year-old. Some uncertainty by trainer Shug McGaughey on whether to run Orb in the Fountain of Youth Stakes over the speed-favoring surface of Gulfstream Park led Rosario's jockey agent, Ron Anderson, to make another commitment for the young Dominican rider in that race.

When McGaughey wound up running Orb in the Fountain of Youth anyway, John Velazquez rode the horse to victory. Because Velazquez had won the Fountain of Youth with Orb, McGaughey kept him on the horse for The Florida Derby, too.

Yet Rosario can't lose for winning. Since he was not on Orb while the horse was winning the Florida Derby, Rosario was available to ride Animal Kingdom in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. He spurred Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby victor, to a win in Dubai.

Yet it appeared Rosario might have lost a chance to win the 2013 Kentucky Derby on Orb.

Except, in 2013, Joel (pronounced like First Noel) Rosario can't lose for winning.

Making the kind of high-risk handicapping decision that jockeys' careers are defined by, Velazquez chose to ride Todd Pletcher's unbeaten Verrazano rather than Orb in the Kentucky Derby.

So on a rain-drenched First Saturday in May before a Churchill Downs crowd of 151,616, it was Rosario aboard Orb as the son of Malibu Moon dropped 183/4 lengths behind the pace-setting Palace Malice one-half mile into the 139th Kentucky Derby.

Which meant Rosario had the field right where he wanted it. Turning in a patient yet bold ride amidst trying conditions in the cavalry charge that is a Kentucky Derby, Rosario guided a late-running Orb through traffic to win the blanket of roses in a time of 2:02.89.

"It feels like I'm dreaming, I cannot believe I won the Kentucky Derby," Rosario said. For the native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, it was his first Derby victory in his fourth try.

It also continued a torrid tear in the commonwealth for Rosario. Riding full-time at Keeneland this year for the first time, Rosario shattered the track's spring meet record with a whopping 38 victories. On the first Saturday night of the Churchill Downs spring meeting, Rosario won five times.

"Forever, right?" Rosario said, asked how much he loved the Bluegrass State these days.

As a kid in the baseball-mad Dominican Republic, Rosario dreamed of being a World Series hero. Growing up in a family of 12 children, he was small as an early teen. An older brother who enjoyed betting on horse races suggested Joel try to become a rider. So Rosario attended the Dominican Republic's jockey school. He started riding in his native country, then launched his United States career in 2006 on the Northern California circuit.

After legendary trainer Bobby Frankel started using him, Rosario was able two years later to move his tack south to the more prestigious Southern California jockey's colony. There, he stamped himself as a national up-and-comer.

This spring, having moved east, Rosario has become the nation's number one jockey, period, leading the country in both wins and earnings.

Even as his career has blown up, Rosario has been almost as impressive with his humble demeanor.

"He has such a pleasing way about him," said Anderson, his agent. "He's very appreciative. Appreciative of owners and horses. He does not think it is all about him."

Rosario won the first Kentucky Derby for connections that are as regal as horse racing gets. McGaughey is already in the Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Owners Stuart Janney III and Ogden M. "Dinny" Phipps are racing blue bloods. "I'm very happy for Shug, you know, (more) than for myself," Rosario said.

Said McGaughey of the jockey who guided Orb to victory in the one race the Lexington-native trainer has long coveted: "To see the race he rode today, (in) a race like this with maybe not as much experience as some of the other (jockeys), it just shows you what is."

Right now, Joel Rosario is the guy who can't lose for winning.

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