Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Five months after a spill on Jan. 18, 2013, Ramon Dominguez sat in a doctor’s office and received news no jockey ever wants to hear. His career was over.
The doctor explained the severity of a traumatic brain injury Dominguez had suffered. He outlined the risks that would be associated with another such injury, risks so great that they made it unthinkable for the jockey to enter the starting gate ever again.
The news was initially devastating and sent shock waves throughout jockey colonies everywhere. There was no more respected figure in the game than Dominguez, and the native of Caracas, Venezuela, was at the height of his powers.
He had swept the Eclipse Award as the leading rider in North America for three successive years from 2010-12. He achieved 25 of his 44 Grade 1 victories and 20 individual meet titles during that remarkable stretch, the likes of which racing has rarely seen. In all, he owned 4,985 victories, 160 of them in graded stakes.
Only the summer before, Dominguez had broken John Velazquez’s record for victories at the prestigious summer meet at Saratoga Race Course with 68 wins. Velazquez had held the mark with 65, set in 2004.
And now it was over? At age 36? The news was hard to process.
“If was difficult, of course,” Dominguez said. “You have to come to terms that you cannot continue something you enjoy, something that was part of your life.”
Steve Rushing, his agent, still laments the seeming injustice of it all.
“No one deserves to have his career taken from him that way, especially Ramon,” he said. “Not only was he a world-class rider, he’s a world-class human being. He’s just the best.”
Dominguez led the nation in victories in 2001 (433) and 2003 (453). He began riding when he was 16 and soon displayed rare gifts.
“He had great, great hands. He could get a horse to relax when no one else could,” Rushing said. “He got the horses to do whatever he wanted them to do. He had that ability, something you can’t teach.”
Dominguez cared about horses. He was passionate about winning at every level.
He and Alpha appeared to be beaten in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 2012. It seemed there was no way they could reel in longshot Golden Ticket. Dominguez sent Alpha into an all-out drive and they began closing the gap. The distance between the two horses was shrinking with every stride.
Would they get there?
Dominguez, working feverishly, gave Alpha a final nudge. Alpha hit the wire simultaneously with Golden Ticket. The photo finish was examined, then re-examined, while the large crowd anxiously awaited the result. There was no telling the two horses apart. Saratoga added the first dead heat to the race’s rich history.
Dominguez reached the winner’s circle three times at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, prevailing with Better Talk Now (Turf, 2004), Hansen (Juvenile, 2011) and pulling a memorable upset with Little Mike (Turf, 2012).
It seemed only a matter of time before he began piling up Triple Crown victories. His best finishes were second in the Kentucky Derby with Bluegrass Cat (2006), second in the Preakness with Scrappy T (2005) and third in the Belmont Stakes with First Dude (2010).
Rushing will always wonder what might have been if Dominguez had been able to continue.
“I do think about it,” he said. “I think he would have broken all the records, the money earnings and all that.”
Dominguez’s wife, Sharon, played a huge role in helping him to move on. They have two children, Matthew and Alex.
“I give all the credit to my wife, who basically pushed me to go to the track,” he said. “Because if it was up to me, I would have continued not going to the track for a long time.”
Dominguez also leaned on his belief in God to help him through.
“I am extremely blessed,” he said. “In a relatively short amount of time, I was able to accomplish a lot.”
Dominguez received the ultimate honor when he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2016. “Horse racing has given me so much joy that I can only dream about,” he told the capacity crowd in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in an emotion-charged acceptance speech.
- Only jockey to register six-win days twice during same Saratoga meet, accomplishing that in 2012
- Inducted into Saratoga Walk of Fame on Aug. 25, 2017
- Received red jacket during ceremony as someone who made significant contributions to racing and the advancement of Saratoga Race Course
- Designated his agent, Steve Rushing, to present him for induction into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame
- Was a bold rider but admits to some nervousness while flying