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Joel Rosario, a mainstay among the leading riders in New York since moving there from Southern California in 2012, seized a prime opportunity back on the West Coast on Aug. 18 in the absence of injured jockey Victor Espinoza, stepping in for the mount on Accelerate in the TVG Pacific Classic. Not only did Rosario and Accelerate dominate that $1 million Grade 1 stakes at Del Mar, but Rosario’s three other wins on the card also included one aboard Game Winner in that juvenile colt's impressive career debut.
Rosario has been riding at a career peak ever since, piling up 10 more Grade 1 wins since the Pacific Classic, highlighted by three Breeders' Cup triumphs at Churchill Downs: Accelerate in the $6 million Classic; Game Winner in the $2 million Sentient Jet Juvenile; and Jaywalk in the $2 million Tito’s Handmade Vodka Juvenile Fillies. On Wednesday, Rosario will be back in Southern California, and this time he will stay awhile, settling in for the winter at Santa Anita Park, beginning with the track's traditional opener the day after Christmas.
Rosario, who only had one Grade 1 win in the first 7 ½ months of 2018, is eager to extend his momentum into 2019 and continue the plum assignments out West with Accelerate, who is in the midst of preparations at Santa Anita for a career finale in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 29, and with the unbeaten Game Winner, who will now set sights on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
"I'm excited to be back there for the winter; I always feel very comfortable in California," said Rosario, who spent most of December at home in the Dominican Republic for a well-earned vacation and a chance to visit family. He did sneak away for two mounts at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 15 and came away with a Grade 3 victory on Capla Temptress in the My Charmer Stakes.
"He is just in an amazing groove right now," said Ron Anderson, the long-time top jockey agent who has booked rides for Rosario since 2012. "When you see his confidence going up, it's kind of like when Michael Jordan would talk about the basket getting bigger. The one big win we had in the first half of the year was with Mind Your Biscuits in the Dubai Golden Shaheen, and it just seemed to make a big difference. The first half of the year was a complete mess. I had a hip replaced and maybe I wasn't functioning like I usually would. We were at Gulfstream last winter and it just did not work out, for a variety of reasons. After Dubai World Cup night, we all of a sudden started clicking, and when you're winning more races, I'm able to make pitches to get on specific horses and the answer is 'Yes.' If you're not winning, then nobody is saying 'Yes,' and no one is really looking for you."
The plan is for Rosario to winter at Santa Anita, head to Keeneland for the spring meet in April and return to New York for the spring and summer. The late Garrett Gomez followed the same itinerary with Anderson as his agent when Gomez captured back-to-back Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding jockey in 2007 and 2008.
Rosario's background in California paved the way for he and Anderson to land the mount on Accelerate after Espinoza went to the sidelines in late July with a fractured vertebra in his neck. With Espinoza up, Accelerate had swept the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes between March and late May.
Tapping Rosario as the replacement was an easy call for trainer John Sadler.
"We go way back, from when he was starting out in California, and I can say this: when you bring up his name, the first thing that comes to mind is that he has ice in his veins," Sadler said. "He was a perfect fit for Accelerate. There is no panic in him as a rider, and that goes back to when he was riding here in California and we were winning titles together. That is his biggest strength, the ice in his veins, and then, kind of going in order, his physicality. He is very, very strong and one of the most physical riders and best finishing riders that we have around right now. I'm going to try to use him as much as I can this winter with him back out here."
Rosario pinpointed confidence as a key ingredient in several big streaks that have highlighted his career, with this latest one rivaling the stretch from the spring of 2013 when he took down the Dubai World Cup with Animal Kingdom and the Kentucky Derby with Orb.
"He is certainly one of the top riders in the country," said Animal Kingdom's trainer, Graham Motion. "His ride on Animal Kingdom in Dubai was brilliant."
Anderson said some good fortune was at play when he was able to hook Rosario up with Game Winner on the Pacific Classic undercard for trainer Bob Baffert. Game Winner, as the 1.90-1 second choice going six furlongs in his debut, kicked away powerfully in the stretch to win by 5 ¾ lengths.
"We were in town for the Pacific Classic and that was just a case of being in the right place at the right time, getting that call from Baffert," Anderson said.
Rosario did stay in New York to ride the Labor Day card at Saratoga the same day Game Winner prevailed in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity with Mario Gutierrez in the irons, yet Anderson was able to get Rosario back on the colt for the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 29 when Rosario was in town to ride Accelerate in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes. Both horses were favored and victorious, in what turned out to be a preview of the Breeders' Cup.
"Ron has done a great job getting me on the right horses," Rosario said. "That is the main thing. Yes, confidence is very important, and when you are riding horses like [Accelerate and Game Winner], you are going to be confident."