By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
He shows up.
That one phrase summarizes why Mario Pino tied Hall of Famer Earlie Fires, who retired with 6,470 wins, for tenth place on the all-time wins list on Friday night at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.
Pino, 51, does more than merely show up, of course. Without fail, he comes to the paddock as prepared as he can be mentally and physically. It has been that way since he reached the winner’s circle the first time, with aptly named Ed’s Desire, at Bowie Race Course on Jan. 16, 1979. And it has been that way through 28 seasons that each produced at least 150 wins.
It is not unusual for jockeys to feel burned out, to become exhausted in every way. Days spent shedding pounds, working the barns for business, studying past performances and television replays – not to mention making nerve-wracking decisions during races – tend to blend together until it is all a blur.
“It gets to you mentally and physically,” Pino said. “You are competing every day. You don’t really get a break. And you are riding all year long.
“People don’t understand. You don’t just jump up on a horse. There is more to it than that. I try to picture where I want to be in a race. I’ve got a Plan A, Plan B kind of thing.”
And then he so often finds himself resorting to Plan C.
“I try to be ready for unexpected things,” he said.
The combination of studiousness and resourcefulness allowed him to rank among the top five jockeys in Maryland every year from 1979-2003. According to Equibase, he holds the record for victories in that state with 4,958.
King Leatherbury, a trainer who has stood the test of time in Maryland, marvels at Pino’s staying power.
“He just endured. There he is, year after year after year,” Leatherbury said. “At no time was he a sensation, as some riders are sensations for a period of time. Mario just kept on grinding. He’s got all that experience behind him, and he keeps on going.”
Leatherbury recalled an instance in which he gave Pino a leg up before a race without providing him with any instructions. The owner looked on disapprovingly.
“You didn’t tell him what to do,” complained the owner.
“Do you tell Mickey Mantle not to swing at a ball that’s low?” Leatherbury responded. “You don’t tell experienced riders what to do. He’s not going to make any mistakes.”
Pino understands that what he does before the starting gate snaps open is as important as whatever action he takes during the race.
“If something happened because I wasn’t prepared, it would bother me,” he said. “If I wasn’t looking at the bias of the racetrack or what a horse likes to do, I’d be disappointed in myself.”
Although his mounts have earned more than $118 million and he took second with Hard Spun in the 2007 Kentucky Derby (G1), Pino is not mentioned among the elite riders. Leatherbury, though, views him as a Hall of Famer.
“I don’t know what the criteria are,” the trainer said, “but his endurance put him there and 6,000 wins is amazing.”