Maryland's Winning Jockey: 'You Have to Be Fearless'
By Robert Klemko
Friday, March 13, 2009; with an update April 10, 2009
Second in an intermittent series of profiles on folks with interesting jobs
LAUREL, Md. -- Mario Pino stares into the eyes of a 2-year-old colt that dwarfs him by hundreds of pounds. He feels a hint of fear, he says --a lurking notion that this race could be his last.
But “you have to be fearless,” says Pino, the 5-foot-5-inch, 113-pound jockey who has ridden in more than 45,000 races in his 30-year career. “If you’re scared, you’re not going to go far. …
"Every time you get on the track there’s a chance that you can be seriously hurt or not walk again," says Pino. "There’s always that fear."
He’s been lucky, he says, in that he hasn’t had "any very serious injuries."
Pino counts his once-broken collarbones, fractured skull and numerous cracked ribs among the less-than-serious injuries he’s suffered since he began riding professionally at 16.
“I always could come back,” says Pino, 47. “I’ve been lucky in that department. I’ve gone down when I thought I was done and been able to bounce back.”
During his career, Pino has won more than 6,100 races, becoming the 14th all-time winningest jockey in North American horse racing, according to the Jockeys' Guild, a national organization.
Two years ago, Pino made his first and only appearance in the prestigious Kentucky Derby, riding the 3-year-old colt Hard Spun to a second-place finish behind Street Sense.
Pino and Hard Spun led the race in the third turn but faltered in the home stretch.
“Just to ride in the Kentucky Derby after 28 years of never going, and to almost win, it was the ultimate thrill of my career,” he says. “Turning into the stretch, I thought I was going to win, and hearing the noise of the crowd was the biggest high. To be in it and to almost win, it was a big thing for me.”
More than three decades before, Pino wouldn't have imagined performing on one of horse racing’s grandest stages. As a child growing up on a farm in Wilmington, Del., Pino had his sights set on other athletic goals.
“When I was 9 or 10 years old I wanted to be some kind of athlete,” he says. “I didn’t care what it was, you know, football, basketball, baseball. But my size came into play where I couldn’t really go into that direction, so my father pushed me on to be a jockey.
“I’ve been around horses all my life, so it was a good fit.”
His career has taken him to race tracks in more than 30 states and Canada and has earned more than $100 million in stakes for his racing teams, according to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
"He is a terrific rider, and the longevity of his career is an incredible thing," says Michael Pons, a part-owner and business manager of the Country Life Farm in Bel Air, Md., one of the oldest thoroughbred farms in the state. Pons has watched Pino race since the late 1970s.
"It takes a special person to be able to endure for that long," Pons says. "You look at his career, and at the end of the day, he's a guy who rode for so long and rode so well for so long."
Today, Pino rides primarily at Laurel Park Race Track, the closest venue to the Ellicott City home where he’s raised three daughters with his wife of 23 years, Christina Pino.
"He was certainly talented enough to ride anywhere in the country, but he chose Maryland so he could sleep in his own bed and be with his family," Pons says.
Pino admits that retirement is regrettably inevitable.
"I’m going to play it by ear," he says. "I love what I’m doing, but it’s not like you can ride forever."