Joel Rosario slid into the front seat of agent Ron Anderson's SUV on the Churchill Downs backside and shut out the rest of the world. It was good to find refuge from a bevy of photo hunters and the media scrum, all excitement that surrounds him this week before the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"They told me that it would be crazy, but I never thought that it would be like this," he said.
And that was just the morning of April 29.
If Rosario were any hotter, his jet-black boots would leave a smoke stream in the wake of each well-ridden winner. For the 28-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, a mount aboard Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable's highly-regarded Besliu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) victor Orb is natural progression after a whirlwind month of traveling, racing, and setting records.
Going into Churchill's April 30 racing card, Rosario had won with 23 of his past 56 mounts, twice winning five races in a day and three times booting home four winners on one card during the spring meet at Keeneland. He is fresh off utter domination of the stand, in which he took 38 races to eclipse Randy Romero's 1990 spring record of 32.
He won the Beaumont Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select (gr. II), the Appalachian Stakes Presented by Japan Racing Association (gr. IIT), the Bewitch Stakes, and the Elkhorn Stakes. As the meet developed, he became the regular rider for Ken and Sarah Ramsey. He helped them break the all-time record for races won by a stable during a single meet with 25 (the old record was 12), as well as for their main trainer Mike Maker, whose 25 winners were the most saddled by one man in a single meet in Keeneland history.
"I didn't expect it to go that well," said Rosario, who spent a full season at Keeneland for the first time this month. "I started winning right away and Mr. Ramsey gave me a lot of chances and Mike Maker and all those people. I feel like it was my opportunity and their opportunity, because if they didn't give me a chance to ride their horses, I don't think I'd do what I did. They set a record, I set a record, I felt like they gave me the chance."
Speaking of chances, let's not forget one given to Rosario by Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion—to ride Animal Kingdom in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 30. The 2011 Kentucky Derby winner's overpowering performance with Rosario, who initially came under criticism for a loss to multiple grade I-winning turf star Point of Entry in the Gulfstream Park Turf (gr. IT), catapulted the rider into the international spotlight.
Although Rosario spent three solid years as a leading rider on the Southern California circuit with titles earned at Del Mar, Betfair Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita Park, there is no doubt victory in the world's richest race placed his name on the tip of the industry's tongue as he made his way to Kentucky.
"The Dubai World Cup is one of the biggest races in the sport, and when I won that race, I said, 'Wow, all my dreams are coming true,'" remarked Rosario. "I always thought to win the Dubai World Cup, Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup races...so now, just to have a chance to win the Kentucky Derby is incredible."
If fate—or genetics—chose to add a few more inches to the top of Rosario's head, he might very well still be watching the Derby without ever having donned a pair of riding breeches.
"Everybody wants to play baseball because it's a big sport over there," Rosario said. "It's like here, everybody wants to be a basketball player or football player...there it's a baseball player. I played for a long time, I started when I was five or six years old, I started early. I played good but I never grew up, I wanted to get bigger, but I stayed the same."
This was why Rosario's stepbrother, who "used to like betting horses in the track," suggested a potential career as a jockey. At the shockingly young age of 14, six months after enrolling in the jockey school in his native country, Rosario obtained his professional license. He won his first race, at Galapagos Hippodromo V Centenario, in July of 2000 as a 15-year-old. That same year, over the radio, he listened to a broadcast of the Kentucky Derby—Fusaichi Pegasus the first Derby winner he remembers noticing. Three years later, he watched Jose Santos gallop Funny Cide under the Derby wire.
"I was always watching races from here—racing here is like nothing, nowhere," recalled Rosario, who grew up riding farm horses as one of 15 children near Santo Domingo. "It's the best place you can be, in the USA. When I came to love more racing, I became a fan and watched all the big races. I would be like, 'Look at this race, worth a million dollars! Oh, this is good!'"
He was leading rider in his native land from 2001-2003, and after finishing second in 2004, rebounded to become leading rider in 2005 again. In 2006 he was the second-leading rider when he moved his tack to the United States. It was not an easy transition, but his talent carried him through.
"I didn't speak English," he said. "I could never speak with no one. I still can't speak it very good, but I try to learn it every day. It's not easy to learn. I went to California and it took a little time to get going; it was not easy for me. But every day—every day—I worked hard."
I just really want to get on horses, he used to tell trainers, often aided with translation by helpful grooms or barn foremen. That's it. Just ride.
Slowly but surely, things came together. Rosario won his first black-type event in the $50,000 Luck of the Irish Handicap at Bay Meadows. His first graded stakes was the 2008 edition of the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita, the same year he won the grade I Clasico del Caribe. His first North American grade I was the 2009 La Brea aboard Evita Argentina, taken the same year he notched his first Breeders' Cup World Championships victory in the $2 million Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) on Dancing in Silks at odds of 25-1. His first mount in the Kentucky Derby was in 2010; he rode 30-1 shot Make Music For Me to a respectable fourth-place finish.
In Orb, Rosario finds his best contender to date after finishing seventh with Brilliant Speed in 2011 and fifth in 2012 on Creative Cause —even though he was not aboard for the colt's greatest victories to date. When the Shug McGaughey-trained runner won the Florida Derby it was on March 30, the same day Rosario won in Dubai, so Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez was in the irons. Velazquez also piloted the 3-year-old son of Malibu Moon to his Fountain of Youth (gr. II) score, but chose to remain on the undefeated Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Verrazano for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Derby.
Rosario was in the irons for Orb's first five starts. And despite his absence when Orb won the races that solidified his status as one of the main contenders for this year's Run for the Roses, the jockey was still proud.
"I said, 'Oh, look, my horse won a grade II!' " Rosario remembered with a grin. "And then he just won the Florida Derby, too, last time, so it looks like he's just getting better and better."
Rosario said he got a glimpse of Orb's talent in his debut at Saratoga Race Course last summer, when he finished third.
"That was a really good race," the jockey said. "He jumped in the air and I lost a lot of ground early. I never thought I was going to finish anywhere, because he was so far behind. And he finished third, got beat by two lengths or something like that, and that was really impressive. After that he ran a couple times and didn't do any good, but after that he broke his maiden and he looked good, when he won an allowance race he's looking even better. The opportunity to ride him back is awesome."
When, at the end of 2012, Rosario decided to switch his tack to the East Coast circuit, he finished well at Saratoga and rolled that success into a solid meet at Gulfstream Park, where he was second in the standings of the recently-concluded winter-spring meet. He also hired Anderson, the former agent for Hall of Fame trainers Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens and current top rider Garrett Gomez.
"He's a really talented rider with a really special way to him," Anderson said. "He's confident, but not cocky. He doesn't think it's about him. He's just a tremendous rider, and he's only 28 years old—he's a baby. For a jockey, I'm going to say 30-32 is most likely the age range to reach their prime, but he's a different kind of person—a special kid. He makes things easy, and that's what the good ones do, just like good horses. The good ones make things easy."
After the Kentucky Derby, Rosario plans a return to New York, where he will ride at Belmont Park. He held off from buying a place there last summer when he was testing the waters, but the events of the past month have solidified his confidence in the move.
"I didn't know if I was going to stay; I just came from California to try it, but everything's going good and it looks like we're probably going to stay," he said.
Rosario is quiet and introspective—"I'm always shy; I just don't like to talk too much, it's not me—I'm always quiet."
He also said he doesn't always like to hang out in the jockeys' room, but prefers to work out and go straight to ride: "I don't like to be in there, sit down, wait. I just like to be working and go."
Still, that initially bashful layer melts into a charming smile and witty sense of humor when the jockey warms up. And his overwhelmed, tongue-tied nature around large crowds or members of the media should not be taken for lack of appreciation.
"I just love horses, you know," he said. "And to have the chance to ride in the biggest race we have in racing, it's really emotional to me. I'm incredibly thankful to be here."