Joel Rosario returned to Gulfstream Park to ride the April 3 program, but the 28-year-old jockey hadn't really come back to earth after riding 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom to victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 30 at Meydan.
"It was really a special moment for me and something I'll remember for my whole life," Rosario said between races. "I just have to thank all of the people who gave me a chance. I feel so proud and happy. I'm happy for the chance they gave me."
Arrowfield Stud and Team Valor International's Animal Kingdom, who had been prepped by Graham Motion at Palm Meadows Training Center this winter, scored by two lengths in the richest Thoroughbred race in the world.
The 5-year-old horse prepared for the World Cup at Gulfstream on Feb. 9, when he came up short after an early move to finish second behind multiple grade I winner Point of Entry in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. I). It was the first time Rosario was aboard the son of Leroidesanimaux, and despite criticism of his ride, Team Valor's Barry Irwin and Motion gave him the return mount for the World Cup.
"I can tell you if they didn't give me the chance, I wouldn't have been there. I have to thank them for that," Rosario said.
In the World Cup, Animal Kingdom broke alertly and gained a good stalking position behind a pacesetting Royal Delta before easily taking over the lead turning into the long stretch. He quickly opened a three-length lead and coasted home to victory.
"He was amazing. He ran a great race," Rosario said. "I just followed Royal Delta. I could see she was slowing down. I wanted to get the jump and get him in front. Turning for home, I just let him find his stride and let him do his job. He was looking around, like, 'Where is my competition?' It made me feel confident. He was doing it on his own."
In addition to the healthy commission from the $6 million winner's share of the purse, Rosario was presented with a gold whip by Sheikh Mohammed to commemorate the victory.
"It's awesome. It looks like a horse, but it's a whip," Rosario said. "A race like this will stay with you forever."
Rosario ventured east from Southern California last June in a quest for greater opportunities to gain mounts in major stakes. Had he not ridden at Gulfstream fulltime for the first time this winter, it's highly unlikely he would have ended up with the mount aboard Animal Kingdom. Through Sunday, Rosario rode 87 winners to rank second behind defending champion Javier Castellano in the jockey standings.
"To come here and win races like I have been, I have to thank the people for the opportunity," he said.
April 4 will be Rosario's final day at Gulfstream for the meeting; he's set to ride at Keeneland on the Lexington oval's opening day April 5, before piloting undefeated Vyjack in the $1 million Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack April 6.
"If he can finish like he did last time, he'll have a great chance," said Rosario, who rode Vyjack in a last-to-first victory in the Gotham (gr. III) at Aqueduct March 2.
Rosario will return to Keeneland to ride the full meet there for the first time in his career. His brief visits to the Blue Grass have been profitable; he first rode at Keeneland in 2010 and has grade I victories in the 2010 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (gr. IT) on Harmonious and the 2011 Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) with Brilliant Speed.
"He will be here at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning," agent Ron Anderson said. "He rides here Friday then goes to New York Saturday for the Wood, and then will be back here on Sunday and stay in Kentucky through Derby Day."