Joe Rocco Jr. has found that one drawback in being a jockey is that he doesn't spend as much time with the horses as he would like.
When Rocco was growing up in a racing family, he spent long days working with Thoroughbreds. His dad, Joe Rocco, enjoyed a successful riding career of more than 30 years in which he won 3,714 races, which ranks 85th on the all-time list for North American-based riders.
Rocco's grandfather, Baden Hughes, and mother, Debora, both trained horses. Rocco worked at his family's New Jersey farm and began galloping horses as a teenager for Mid-Atlantic-based trainer Sam Cronk. The jockey said he loves figuring out horses through daily work together. He enjoys the racetrack's daily transition of busy morning to racing afternoon, to quiet evening.
"My favorite part of riding horses is working with them and building a bond," Rocco said. "Honestly, as a jockey, you miss out on some of that, and I miss that."
One horse Rocco has a bond with is Don't Tell Sophia, who he'll ride in the $2 million Longines Distaff Stakes (gr. I) Oct. 31, at Santa Anita Park. It is the second Breeders' Cup mount for the 32-year-old, who guided Ms Vanezza to a ninth-place finish in the 2009 Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) in his Breeders' Cup debut.
In four mounts, Rocco has registered three wins and a runner-up finish on Don't Tell Sophia. All of those races were stakes and the pair enter Friday's 1 1/8-mile race for fillies and mares off wins in the Locust Grove Stakes Sept. 6 at Churchill Downs and the Spinster Stakes (gr. I) Oct. 5 at Keeneland. In the Spinster she upset multiple grade I winner Close Hatches, who she'll face again in the Distaff.
A $1,000 purchase at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale, Don't Tell Sophia is campaigned by Jerry Namy and her trainer Philip Sims. Rocco likes the story of the Congaree mare, who is enjoying her best season at age 6. He said one of the advantages of a smaller operation is that they can give individual horses more attention and help them improve.
Rocco enjoyed his most successful season by earnings in 2013, with 110 wins and more than $6 million in purse earnings. In 2013-14 he boasts a dozen graded stakes wins.
He said he would love to guide Don't Tell Sophia to victory Friday and celebrate with his family and the family of the mare's connections. His wife Jamie, a daughter of Lonnie Arterburn, and two children made the trip to Santa Anita with Rocco.
Rocco will call his father on race day, as he does every day. Rocco Sr., who also won multiple stakes races, exited the hospital Oct. 29 after a bout of meningitis. He won't be able to make the trip to Santa Anita from his Maryland home, but will be rooting for his son on television.
"Growing up in the business, these were the races that I dreamed of winning when I was a kid," Rocco Jr. said. "Now to get be competing in these races, it's a dream come true."