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On Racing: Pino's Odyssey in the Irons Ends at 7,001

Presented by the NTRA

Mario Pino returns to the winner's circle aboard his 7,000th winner at Presque Isle Downs

Mario Pino returns to the winner's circle aboard his 7,000th winner at Presque Isle Downs

Coady Photography

Mario Pino spent the first day of the rest of his life driving with his wife, Christina, from their seasonal digs near Presque Isle Downs in western Pennsylvania to their daughter's place in Maryland. Along the way, Pino ordered and consumed with gusto the Big Mac with cheese he'd been promising himself for the past four years. It was, without question, the best Big Mac ever.

"When I woke up today, I thought about all the things I didn't have to do anymore," Pino said. "And one of them was get on a scale four times a day."

Twelve hours earlier, in the quiet of the Presque Isle backstretch, Pino had pulled to a career stop aboard the 6-year-old gelding Homemade Moonshine after the running of the evening's final race.

"It was a weird feeling," Pino said. "It was eight o'clock, but it felt like eleven because I'd already ridden seven races. It was raining, cold and damp—a miserable night. Going in, I was looking at a 12-horse field and said to myself, 'I just hope this horse doesn't stumble or do something stupid.' I mean, things like that run through your mind when you're about to ride your last one."

The last one for Pino, on Oct. 21, was mount number 42,630 in a career that began Nov. 4, 1977, in a claiming race at Penn National. Jimmy Carter was the President. The first Star Wars movie was still in theaters. And the Yankees had just beaten the Dodgers in the World Series behind Reggie Jackson's three home runs in game six.

Now, 44 years later, Pino was perched quietly atop Homemade Moonshine after finishing fourth in the $6,250 claimer, having made it around one last time. The effort was worth $650 to owner Sydney Rotunno and a mount fee for the jockey.

"I sat there for a few seconds and just looked around," Pino said. "I was thinking this was the last time I'd be turning around and galloping back. It was just me and the horse. I looked down at his neck galloping back thinking, 'This is the last racehorse I'll ever ride.'"

There is a special place in the pantheon of jockeys for those who find a way to go out on their own terms, head held high and the body in one piece. Pino had promised the people who run Presque Isle that he would ride there until he won his 7,000th race, a promise he fulfilled Oct. 20. The next night, while going out in an eight-ride blaze of glory, Pino won number 7,001.

On the night he hit 7,000, Pino's fellow Presque Isle riders were waiting for him, water bucket at the ready.

"I saw the bucket, but I'm hoping it's not water in there because it's cold and I'm freezing already," Pino said with a laugh. "But it wasn't water. It was a towel! Now that's a good bunch of guys."

Seniority has its privileges. Pino turned 60 in September, which had him counting the days until he would pull the curtain on one of American racing's most durable careers, crafted primarily at the tracks of the Mid-Atlantic region that has spawned so many of the game's shining stars. The daunting threshold of 7,000 loomed. Pino had been through enough to know that the best way to tempt fate is to make a plan, especially when there are Thoroughbred racehorses involved. He had watched many of his contemporaries, still riding high, afforded no choice as to how and when they'd call it a day. Laffit Pincay, Eddie Delahoussaye, Richie Migliore, Julie Krone, Jose Santos, Ramon Dominguez—none of them knew that one ride would be their last, even after they hit the ground.

Pincay is there in that remarkable group of 10 jockeys with more than 7,000 wins, as well as Russell Baze, Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, David Gall, Perry Ouzts, Chris McCarron, Edgar Prado, and Angel Cordero Jr. When Pino returned to the room after his last ride, some wise guy taunted him with, "Hey, why quit? You only need 57 to pass Cordero."

"That was funny," Pino said. "But no thanks. I'm good with 7,001, and I get to walk away happy and healthy. It hasn't sunk in all the way yet, but at least I don't have to get a job, so that's a good thing."

Pino credits his father, also named Mario, for the encouragement he needed to pursue a career. The elder Pino was a multi-tasking horseman with a local show barn in eastern Pennsylvania and a steady side business hauling mushrooms to the canneries of Kennett Square.

"I was 15, just a kid living on the track, no car, and trying to learn how to be a jockey," Pino said. "I'd call home and say, 'I'm lonely. I'm coming home. I don't want to do this no more.' My dad would say, 'No, stay. You can do it.' If I'd have given up then, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

"Here" was about two hours out from their Maryland destination on the first day of the rest of Mario Pino's life. Another daughter lives in North Carolina, and he and Christina will call Florida home from now on without the springtime migration to Presque Isle and points north. He was asked, as he drove, what advice he might have for a young person aiming for a career as a jockey.

"You have to have a good work ethic," Pino said. "Everybody knows that. You've got to have a good attitude, and then you've got to have a thick skin. You have to be competitive, but in a nice way, because you have to deal with a lot of different personalities. You have to know how to talk to people, and how to brush stuff off. The hardest part of the job is dealing with the emotional part. Riding the horses might be the easiest.

"That's what I'll miss more than anything—the horses," Pino said. "I love the horses, riding them, feeling the power of the racehorse. But when I walked away, I kind of said to myself, 'I maybe didn't do all I wanted to do. But what I did do I'm satisfied with.'"

Pino did win 7,001 races, a handsome collection of meet titles, the Mike Venezia Memorial Award, the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, and a place in the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame alongside Brooks Robinson, Johnny Unitas, and Native Dancer. The Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has never beckoned and probably never will. Its process rarely acknowledges local heroes like Pino, no matter how exemplary their careers have been.

The jockey, now honorably retired, is long past caring about such things. With one hand he has managed to help raise a fine family, while with the other, there are those 7,001 winners. Anyway, as it turns out, being Mario Pino has been its own reward.