Talk about your nice Christmas gifts. Jockey Joel Rosario and his agent, Ron Anderson, received a couple of nicely wrapped presents earlier this year when they landed on Horse of the Year contender Accelerate and Game Winner, the early 2019 Kentucky Derby favorite.
It’s no wonder Anderson last month told his client, “Go west, young man.” When two of your top mounts reside on the West Coast, suddenly racing back east loses much of its luster. Especially when you have to contend with the Ortiz brothers, who ride more races than TV Land airs old shows.
But if you think Rosario is back where he first made a name for himself because of the Ortiz brothers, think again.
“They ride so many cheap ones that I’m not interested in,” Anderson said of East Coast mainstays Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz. “I think Joel won 11 Grade Is since Aug. 12. We’re more focused on the better races. There was no frustration.”
Rosario, whose plans to ride full-time at Santa Anita this winter became public last month, has mounts in nine of Wednesday’s 10 races as one of the most historic tracks in the country opens its 82nd winter meet beginning at 11:30 a.m.
Rosario, a West Coast fixture until his former agent, Ronnie Ebanks, convinced him to head east in 2012, is committed to ride at Santa Anita until Keeneland opens in early April for its three-week meet. What happens after that is unknown. It’s the same route Anderson took with Garrett Gomez when he handled the late Hall of Fame rider’s book during his peak years.
“Everything is open and we’ll figure (the future) out later,” Anderson said. “Right now, we’ll trudge on here and see what happens. The reception here has been very good, so I think we’re in good shape.”
Especially with horses like Accelerate, scheduled to run in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26, and Game Winner, who’s unbeaten in four starts and the leader of what looks like another strong brigade of Bob Baffert 2-year-olds.
So how did an East Coast jockey wind up atop two of the best horses on the West Coast?
Rosario and Anderson have long relationships with Accelerate’s trainer, John Sadler. When Victor Espinoza was seriously injured in a morning workout at Del Mar this past summer and the mount on Accelerate became open, it didn’t hurt that Rosario had been aboard when Accelerate’s owners, the Hronis brothers, won their first race in 2010. Also, there were no conflicts. Rosario didn’t have another high-caliber stakes horse that might interfere with any commitments to Accelerate.
“I approached John right away, as everybody else did, and it worked out,” Anderson said. “The stars were kind of aligned there. Sometimes that’s what it takes, being in the right place at the right time.”
Same with Game Winner. Rosario was in town to ride Accelerate in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 18, the same day Game Winner debuted in a maiden special weight. Anderson said the colt’s connections felt the horse might need a race, but he broke well, was forwardly placed and won for fun under Rosario.
After the race, Baffert told Anderson he didn’t think Game Winner would make the Del Mar Futurity only two weeks later.
“He told me he’d run (in the American Pharoah Stakes) when we were back in town for Accelerate (Awesome Again Stakes),” Anderson said.
But Game Winner did run in the Del Mar Futurity, and he won impressively with Mario Gutierrez aboard.
“That surprised me,” Anderson said. “(Baffert) said later in a conversation that (Game Winner) was doing so well that he decided late to enter (the Futurity). Afterward I asked him about the big race (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) and he told me he needed to speak to the owner. He called me back and said we’re all set. You can ride him in the Breeders’ Cup.”
So what is it about Rosario that makes him so attractive to trainers?
“It’s a known fact probably that he’s as good a finishing rider as there is in the whole country,” Anderson said.
“When you start comparing somebody to Laffit Pincay, who was an absolute icon in our business and will be forever, when you start mentioning somebody in the same breath as him, that’s a huge compliment.
“It’s the truth. I grew up when Laffit was in his heyday and (Rosario) is probably the closest thing to Laffit that we’ve ever seen. He’s a powerful athlete.”
And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a quality person as well.
“He’s one of the sweetest, nicest people,” Anderson said. “Forget about jockey, he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in your entire life. I’ve had security guards at Saratoga tell me, ‘That’s my favorite jockey.’ He’s just got a really nice demeanor and way about him.”
Which is another reason why Rosario doesn’t figure to have any problems fitting right in on his return to Southern California. He cultivated relationships during his past stay here that figure to only assist in his move west.
For instance, he’s riding Wednesday for Sadler, Baffert, Jerry Hollendorfer, Peter Miller, Richard Baltas. Mark Glatt and Art Sherman. He figures to be riding some for all the top local trainers this winter.
SANTA ANITA FACTS
What: 82nd winter meet
When: Today through Sunday, April 7.
Top races: $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 6 and $500,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 9.
Defending jockey champion: Evan Roman, 46 wins.
Defending trainer champion: Bob Baffert, 37 wins.
More info: www.santaanita.com.