Two years ago, Ramon Dominguez stood on a red carpet between Hall of Famers Chris McCarron and Manny Ycaza as part of Saratoga Race Course’s first Jockey Legends Day. Later, the two-time Saratoga riding champion posed for a photo among the greats. Laffit Pincay Jr. sat to Dominguez’s left. Angel Cordero Jr. was there. So were Jorge Velasquez, Ron Turcotte and other greats.
By far the youngest man in the photo, Dominguez had been forced to retire because of a head injury suffered in January 2013 – his rocket-ship career grounded less than a month into its 18th season. Domin-guez won 4,985 races, rode the earners of more than $191 million, topped 300 wins a dozen times and rode some of the most important horses of his era.
But he was in awe.
“I saw him in the parking lot after that thing and he was telling me what it meant,” said trainer Dale Romans, who teamed up with Dominguez for Grade 1 wins in the Arlington Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf among other victories. “He was like a kid, he was giddy about talking to those guys in the winner’s circle.”
Romans stopped Dominguez before he could really get started.
“Don’t you realize you are every bit the jockey every one of them was?” the trainer said. “You did everything every bit as good as they did.”
Dominguez hesitated, listened, looked at Romans and scoffed.
“I think you’re biased,” Dominguez said. “We did something special together.”
He probably still doesn’t believe Romans, but Dominguez – whose career took flight in the Mid-Atlantic – joins those greats in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame this year. To prove Romans’ point, the honor comes early as the museum’s executive committee waived the 20-year rule normally required for jockeys. Dominguez will be inducted along with Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and trainer Steve Asmussen in the contemporary categories plus historic honorees Wayne Wright, Arthur “Bull” Hancock Jr., William Woodward Sr. and the horse Tom Ochiltree Aug. 12.
Romans and plenty of others look at Dominguez’s shorter-than-it-should-have-been career and recall a jockey with special skills. They also see a man of special character.
“To hear him say that to me that day, that’s a special memory of Saratoga for me,” said Romans. “He had no idea how great he was.”
To other people, Dominguez’s greatness is far more than an idea.
“He had an intangible that nobody can put their finger on,” said Romans. “Certain riders have it, and the ones that do wind up in the Hall of Fame. They have a knack for communicating with the horse through the reins. I don’t think he has to take a backseat to anyone.”
Trainer Tom Bush, for whom Domin-guez won two Grade 1 stakes aboard Get Stormy: “He was always a professional about everything. It was great to ride him because you knew he had done his homework, you knew he was on the team, you knew he was going to give you his best.”
Trainer Todd Beattie, whose Fabulous Strike won five graded stakes with Domin-guez: “He’s a quiet guy, but couldn’t be more impressive. Watching him ride, how often did you ever see him in front turning for home and not win? If he was in front at the quarter pole, he always had horse.”
Owner Brent Johnson, whose Better Talk Now won eight graded stakes with Dominguez: “You always felt like your horse was going to have a chance to run his best race, and you’d see if the horse was good enough. It was always very detailed with him. He knew what he was doing, what he was feeling, what he wanted to do. He was a tactician as well as being able to handle the horse physically.”
Trainer Larry Jones, who teamed up with Dominguez on several important runners including 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace: “When I first came to Delaware Park for the meet [in 2006] I didn’t know who he was, but I was told that this is the guy you need to get if you can get him. He rode the first winner I had at Delaware that year, Hello Liberty.”
Dozens of others in Maryland, Dela-ware, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, wherever horses run, would echo the same sentiments. The Venezuelan-born Domin-guez was as good as anybody, and better than many. He rode his first races at bush tracks in his home country, then moved on to the La Rinconada track south of Caracas where he rode in 1995. The next year, he was at Hialeah Park in Florida . . . then Maryland . . . then stardom.
While based in Maryland, he led the nation in wins in 2001 (433) and 2003 (453). He won five meet titles at Delaware Park (2003-06 and 2008). He was a force at Laurel Park and Pimlico, filling a void at the top when another future Hall of Famer Edgar Prado moved to New York.
Dominguez and his family lived for a time on a farm they still own in Cecil County, Md. Like Prado, Dominguez moved to New York (with wife Sharon and their sons Alexander and Matthew) and his career took another leap forward.
“When I left Maryland for New York, I knew he was going to be right behind me. He was aggressive, but safe, he had a different style, as long as the horses are running for you, it doesn’t matter about your style, and horses always ran for him,” Prado said. “I’m glad they put him in there, he deserves to be there, he rode a lot of great horses, won a lot of titles. What else is a career about? What else is the Hall of Fame about?”
Dominguez became as sought after as anyone in the formidable New York jockey colony, riding for the most successful owners and trainers in racing.
He led the country in earnings – his mounts topping $20 million in 2011 and setting a record of $25.6 million in 2012 – and won Eclipse Awards in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
His career overflows with memorable moments, and could have continued for who knows how much longer. Then he got a fall with a horse named Convocation at Aqueduct Jan. 18, 2013. Dominguez was hospitalized with a fractured skull and initially considered a comeback until doctors ruled it out. He announced his retirement a few days shy of six months after the fall.
The end came sooner than anyone wanted, but Dominguez exited race riding with his health and has been a visible part of racing while supporting the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and other Thoroughbred charities.
For Beattie, a trip to Churchill Downs with the best horse he ever trained, stands out as his Ramon Dominguez highlight. Fabulous Strike won seven of his first 11 starts including a romping score in the Panhandle Handicap at Mountaineer Park to open the 2007 season. Next came the Grade 3 Aristides at Churchill Downs. Dominguez was riding at the Kentucky track then, and Beattie thought they’d be a good fit.
“He rode for me at Delaware before he went to New York so I knew him,” Beattie said. “I’d watch and see how he was doing. The first crack I had I called him up and got him on my horse. He was a big monster to gallop in the morning, just a tough horse and Ramon had unbelievable hands.”
Warming up before the race, Domin-guez put those hands to a test and took Fabulous Strike away from the lead pony much to the dismay of Beattie.
“I didn’t think that was going to work at all,” the trainer said. “I remember thinking ‘This is bad, he’s going to run off.’ Fabulous Strike was breathing fire. But it worked.”
Racing on the lead throughout, Fabu-lous Strike won his first graded stakes and ran 6 furlongs in 1:07.64. Two starts later, he and Dominguez won the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont Park.
For Bush it was the rides on Get Stormy, including victories in the 2011 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic-G1 at Churchill Downs and the 2012 Gulfstream Park Turf-G1 for sure, but a partnership with Unbridled Command in Saratoga’s Saranac-G3 in 2012 really gets the trainer talking.
“It was as good as it gets,” said Bush. “He’s a big, big, huge horse and he wasn’t easy to handle. You had to really shake him up and put him in the game. Ramon did that. I got Ramon at the last minute. He was a difference maker and he helped turn that horse into a good horse.”
Unbridled Command made his stakes debut in the Saranac. Two starts later, he won the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby.
Bush isn’t the only person to give Dominguez credit for helping a horse move forward, from a win or a loss.
Larry Jones teamed up with the jockey for memorable triumphs with Havre de Grace, Eight Belles, Wildcat Bettie B, Old Fashioned and others, but the trainer also pointed out some defeats worth remembering.
“What made Ramon so good was he would come back and just tell you ‘I messed up. Don’t blame the horse for this’ after one got beat,” said Jones. “He was never afraid to take the blame or stand up for what he did that wasn’t right. A lot of riders won’t do that. He’d come back and tell you something didn’t work or he didn’t do what you wanted him to do. That’s a little bit rare, and it would help you coming back into the next race.”
Dominguez and Josh’s Madelyn finished second in Pimlico’s Allaire duPont-G3 in 2006, but Jones all but considers it a win. For other jockeys, the mare finished a late-running second in each of her prior two starts and before that won from the back in a stakes at Louisiana Downs. Dominguez put her into the race after a half-mile and she finished second.
“I remember thinking, ‘How smart is this guy?’ ” Jones said. “He made adjustments when he needed to, as he needed to.”
Four-year-old filly Havre de Grace and Dominguez won four graded stakes together en route to Horse of the Year honors in 2011 – the Azeri-G3 and Apple Blossom-G1 at Oaklawn Park, the Woodward-G1 against males at Saratoga and the Beldame-G1 at Belmont Park. They lost the Delaware Handicap-G2 by a nose to Blind Luck and before her next start, Jones and Dominguez talked it over.
“You move as early as you want to,” Jones said about strategy for the Woodward. “If she gets tired, it’s my fault.”
Dominguez let Havre de Grace have some rein with a half-mile to go, went after Rule with intent at the quarter pole and had plenty left to keep Flat Out safe at the finish. Afterward, Dominguez thanked Jones for the information.
“I thought he waited a little bit too long with her [at Delaware],” said Jones. “He knew I was getting on these horses myself so if I told him something he believed me. He trusted me with her and I think that helped us. We had a mutual respect and he respected what I told him and he would try to get it accomplished. I’d always tell him that ‘if you need to go to Plan B, I trust your judgment.’ He turned Havre de Grace into the Horse of the Year.”
Dominguez won five of his seven mounts aboard Havre de Grace, the losses being that second to Blind Luck by a nose and a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Before the Eclipse Awards, before the free-flowing success in New York, before the annual trips to wherever the Breeders’ Cup was, Dominguez met Better Talk Now. They partnered 30 times between 2002 and 2009 and won nine races, including eight graded stakes led by Grade 1 scores in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf and Sword Dancer, 2005 United Nations and Man o’ War and 2007 Manhattan.
“Better Talk Now was a tricky horse to ride early on and Ramon with some time, some experience with him, got a much better handle on him,” said Johnson. “Ramon was such a great rider, with great hands, he had the ability to get the horse to do what he wanted the horse to do. He was able to figure out how to get him to relax and do what he wanted.”
Johnson singled out the 2007 Ma-nhat-tan-G1 at Belmont Park as a favorite moment. Better Talk Now’s last victory –
though he’d make a dozen more starts in top company – was textbook Dominguez.
With his oddball extended blinker cup shielding his left eye, Better Talk Now dropped in near the back of the eight-horse field early. Dominguez watched a slow pace develop, before rallying to within 5 lengths on the turn. Head cocked to the right, Better Talk Now idled behind horses in seventh with a quarter-mile to run. Cutting the corner, Dominguez made the only choice he could and dove to the rail to move up two places. Then Better Talk Now passed four horses in a furlong and won by a head over English Channel with Shakis (Ire) third as four horses hit the wire together.
“You’re thinking, ‘There’s no way we’re getting there from here,’ ” said Johnson of his thoughts at the top of the stretch. “Sure enough, we got there.”
Better Talk Now was just one name, even if a big one, on a long list of horses
Dominguez rode for trainer Graham Motion. The others included Confessional, Broken Vow, Trajectory and Equality in the early days and Film Maker, Check the Label, Aruna and Silver Reunion later. The connection started in Maryland, took root all over the region and grew up on the biggest stages of the world.
“We did some pretty cool things,” Motion said. “The Breeders’ Cup was the most memorable for me because of what it was. There was a lot of drama, there was an inquiry, I kind of vaguely remember Ramon thanking people at Delaware Park in the interview afterward and it made me think ‘This is big for him too.’ That was a big deal for all of us.”
Like other trainers, Motion appreciated Dominguez’s blend of talents on a horse. He’d work difficult horses in the morning, then ride them with confidence in the afternoon.
“The finesse, without a doubt,” Motion replied when asked what made Dominguez so good. “He had an extraordinary way of having the horse in the right place. I think Ramon is an animal person, a horse person and he’d figure out the horse’s idiosyncrasies. He probably told you more about the horse than most people. He’s an extraordinary athlete, an intelligent person and he understands horses. Surely those are three big assets to being a successful jockey.”
Mention Dale Romans and Ramon Domin-guez in the same sentence and you’re sure to hear Little Mike next. The turf horse won graded stakes for jockey Joe Bravo, including a victory over Dominguez and Get Stormy in the 2012 Woodford Reserve-G1 at Churchill Downs. The front-runner could make his speed last a mile, a bit more under the right circumstances.
Then Bravo turned down the ride in the 10-furlong Arlington Million-G1 in favor of riding favorite Turbo Compressor for Todd Pletcher in the Sword Dancer-G1 at Saratoga on the same day. Romans tapped Dominguez, who put on one of the world’s great riding performances. He nursed Little Mike on the lead (after splits of :25.10, :49.95 and 1:15.03), then flew home with a final quarter-mile time of :22.90 to upset a loaded field of Americans and European raiders.
“It was amazing how he got him to relax and stroll along like that,” said Romans. “He took what had been considered to be a miler and won a mile-and-a-quarter Grade 1 Arlington Million with him.”
As good as that was, the Breeders’ Cup Turf-G1 two starts later might have been even better. Sent off at 17-1 against world-class turf horses Point of Entry, St Nicholas Abbey (Ire), Shareta (Ire) and Trailblazer (Jpn), Little Mike did it again. Going 11⁄2 miles this time, Dominguez convinced the son of Spanish Steps to rate off the early pace of Turbo Compressor and Optimizer, got first run on the closers and held off Point of Entry by a half-length. In a nod to his friend’s skill, Hall of Famer John Velazquez tapped Dominguez on the rump while pulling up aboard Point of Entry.
“You get a speedball miler to shut off and sit behind two horses and carry his speed a mile-and-a-half the way he did, that’s doing something,” said Romans. “Little Mike was a special horse, but it took as special rider to communicate with him and give him the cues. Nothing against Joe Bravo, he rode him very well. I don’t know many people who would have gotten him to relax behind two horses and last a mile-and-a-half like that.”
Well, Romans only knows one for sure. And he’s a Hall of Famer.
Additional reporting by Sean Clancy.