ELMONT, N.Y. -- Thirty-three-year-old Ramon Dominguez, a mild-mannered native of Venezuela, has set his sights on the riding titles of the New York Racing Association for little more than a year. In that limited amount of time, he has completely ruled the NYRA circuit. But he's still lacking a Belmont Stakes win.
At Aqueduct's 2008-09 Inner Track Meet, Dominguez obliterated the record for season victories (124-105). He took Belmont's 2009 Spring/Summer Meet with 98 wins, won the 2009 Saratoga Meet with 45 wins, conquered the 2009 Belmont Fall Championship Meet with 39 wins, aced the 2009 Fall Meet at Aqueduct with 38 wins, and blew away the competition in the 2009-10 Aqueduct Inner Track Meet with 109 wins. By the end of 2009, he had crossed the line to victory in New York 367 times, the most since Steve Cauthen won 433 races in 1977.
Still, with more than 4,000 victories to his name, "The Gentleman Jockey" has only ridden in one previous edition of the New York Classic -- in 2004 to an eighth-place finish aboard Caiman.
"He's ridden in the Derby a bunch of times and in multiple editions of the Preakness, but it always seemed like those horses just didn't make it to the Belmont," Dominguez's agent, Steve Rushing, said. "It would be a great honor to win the Belmont. A Classic, part of the Triple Crown, would be a big boost to his career."
Talk in the weeks leading up to the Belmont is always of how this 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" is a jockey's race. Here, familiarity with the oval and impeccable instincts are a definite bonus. Dominguez, in the zone since arriving to ride here full-time from the ovals of Maryland and Delaware, could be fairly described as the Empire State's premier rider. Peerless on the turf and practically flawless on the dirt, he turns in ride after polished ride.
"He's obviously a world-class rider," Rushing said. "It's something you can't teach, it's something you're given, it's a natural talent. He's a hard worker and everybody loves him, and he's an even better person than he is a rider. I'm sure his experience in New York is going to help (in the Belmont); whatever the advantage might or might not be, I'm sure it can't hurt."
With First Dude, Dominguez finds ample opportunity, a live shot.
"After the Preakness, I certainly feel like he's right on target," Dominguez said Thursday morning as he stood on the apron at Belmont Park. "In that race, after he was passed by Lookin At Lucky, he tried to come back and kept on fighting. But more importantly, he galloped out strong. He really had every reason to relax; when the race was over and I put my hands down he really should have stopped, and he continued galloping out so that was a great sign. As far as the race on Saturday is concerned, he seems to be training in good order."
Trainer Dale Romans had been high on the son of Stephen Got Even since before his maiden race, when Dominguez rode him to finish second on the Polytrack at Keeneland.
"I'll never forget the comment that Dale Romans made, prior to the race and after," the jockey recalled. "He said to me 'Ramon, this might be your Derby horse.' When I rode him the first time, one thing that really caught my eye was the size of this horse. For a young horse he was huge, but he was also very athletic and very coordinated for a horse his size. He didn't feel like your typical big baby that is just kind of one-paced and slow."
Dominguez has been aboard the colt in his past three starts: to a fifth-place finish after traffic trouble in the Florida Derby, to a third-place finish after a slow start in the Blue Grass, to a second-place finish after setting the pace in the Preakness.
"He's a big horse who covers a lot of ground and when you come back and look at his fractions (in the Preakness), he went so fast, but you also have to take into consideration the group of horses," he said. "It's not like he was opening up on the field at all, he was in front and everybody was on his heels, but I certainly didn't feel like he was going that fast."
Breaking from post 11 with only one horse to his outside, Dominguez said he expects to find ample room to allow the big colt to settle.
"I'm happy with the post position we have because he really doesn't necessarily have to be in front," the jockey said. "The post will allow us to kind of dictate whether we want to go to the lead or whether we have the leisure to lay off if we want to and still be in the clear. Even before the Preakness, just because of the way he moves and how much ground he covers, Dale and I always thought that a mile and a half would be great for him."
For Dominguez, a win at a mile and a half would be even better.
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