By Ed McNamara
Bobby Frankel was a hard-edged guy who didn’t hand out compliments casually. So when he touted an obscure young rider from the Dominican Republic, jockey agent Ron Anderson paid attention.
“Late in 2006 or early in 2007 I was talking to Bobby at Hollywood Park,” Anderson told usracing.com. “I was flipping through the program, and in the back it had the entries for Golden Gate Fields. I noticed that somebody named Rosario was riding for Bobby. I asked him, ‘Who’s this guy Rosario?’
“Bobby leaned toward me and said, ‘You’d better watch him. You might be working for him someday.’ ”
That’s been the case since August 2012, when Rosario fired Ronnie Ebanks, who’d been booking his mounts for 2 1/2 years. Anderson, 65, has represented some of the best riders of all time, including Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Garrett Gomez, Chris Antley, Corey Nakatani and Fernando Toro. Rosario has a chance to be as good as any of them.
Last year he led the nation with 11 Grade 1 wins and had 25 graded-stakes victories, one behind co-leader Irad Ortiz, Jr., and was second in earnings. Rosario is in the conversation for the Eclipse Award and is a lock to be among the three finalists to be announced Jan. 16. Ortiz, the two-time defending champion, has the edge in wins (300-194) and money ($21,050,726-$18,235,197). The brilliant young Puerto Rican is the favorite to threepeat, but there’s no doubt that Rosario is one of the world’s top 10 riders.
“He’s strong, smart and patient,” Anderson said. “He’s very good at getting a horse to relax and settle. He can win on the third-best horse and regularly does. He’s a very gifted athlete with some crazy good hands, as great as anybody’s, and as strong a finisher as there’s been for many years.
“Laffit Pincay could pick a horse up and carry it across the finish line. His son, [racing analyst] Laffit, has said, ‘Joel’s as strong as my dad was.’ He’s only 117, 118 pounds, but you feel his arms and they’re like iron. He’s built a little like a body builder.”
Rosario, who turns 36 on Jan. 14, was born in San Pedro de Macoris, known as “The City of Shortstops” for the many it’s sent to the big leagues. Like friends who played with him seven days a week, he dreamed of being a professional baseball player, but by age 9 he realized his size would never allow that. (He’s only 5 feet, short even for a jockey.) He grew up on a farm in Santo Domingo and was riding work horses and donkeys when he was 3. Nine years later, he went to the races with an older brother and a light went on.
He completed a two-year program at the national jockey school and got his professional license at 14. After another year of learning and paying dues on the backstretch, he got his start at Quinto Centenario Racetrack in Santo Domingo. He was 15 1/2 when he rode his first winner.
“As a little kid growing up, I loved horses but I didn’t know that much about horse racing. Then I decided it was what I wanted to do. My parents had to sign something to give their permission, because the age was 16,” Rosario told me. “I started winning a lot of races right away as an apprentice, more than the older professionals.”
In 2006, bloodstock agent and former trainer Herbert Soto arranged for Rosario to leave their homeland for California. He had to start at the bottom.
“I was the leading rider in the Dominican for four years,” he said, “but when I got here a lot of people didn’t even know they had horse racing there.”
His first U.S. winner was at Fresno, a stop on the California fair circuit, on Oct. 5, 2006. A few months later, he caught Frankel’s eye and began riding for him at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco area.
“Bobby Frankel was a person who was really dedicated to his work,” Rosario said. “He was very serious and a nice person. Many years later, Ron told me what he said to him about me back then, but I didn’t know about that at the time.”
Anderson called Frankel “an authority about everything in the game,” and the Hall of Famer could spot potential greatness in people as well as in thoroughbreds. He also mentored trainer Chad Brown, a four-time Eclipse winner, and Rosario also has risen to the top of his profession.
His spectacular spring in 2013, his first full year with Anderson, put him on the international map. In late March he took the Dubai World Cup on Animal Kingdom before bringing in a record 38 winners at Keeneland’s April meet. Then came a mud-spattered, last-to-first victory on Orb in the Kentucky Derby and a stakes win at England’s Royal Ascot, the world’s most prestigious meeting. No one had ever pulled off that grand slam, and it’s most unlikely that anybody else will.
“That was a very special year for me,” Rosario said. “I couldn’t believe it, really. I was the first Dominican jockey to win the Derby, and I think after I did that a lot of people in my country learned more about horse racing. The president of the Dominican Republic even congratulated me.”
No matter where Rosario rides, he’s one of the top guys in the room. From 2007-12 he led the standings seven times at Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Santa Anita.
In 2010 and 2011, he and Ebanks, his former agent, were on a roll while based in Southern California — 579 victories, a 22.4% winning rate and $31.5 million in earnings. They broke up during the 2012 Saratoga meeting shortly after relocating to New York.
“My intent for taking Joel east was to show everybody he was as good as anybody in the country and to win an Eclipse,” Ebanks wrote in an e-mail. “Physically, he already was. He just needed to mature and improve mentally.”
“He can ride a speed horse, he can come from behind,” Anderson said. “He has no flaws. He has the knack, just the feel of what to do in a race, and you can’t teach that.”
He’s also low maintenance.
“He takes very good care of himself, very disciplined, no weight problem,” Anderson said. “He’s as fit as he can be. He does 117, 118 steadily and has been with a nutritionist since we’ve been together.”
Rosario is proud of how far he’s come but keeps his ego under control.
“At the end of the day, most pro athletes think the game revolves around them,” Anderson said, “but Joel has absolutely nothing of that attitude. He’s very respectful. It’s not about him, and sometimes after he wins I’ll even tell him, ‘Joel, you need to take some credit. That horse should have been third or fourth. You made the difference.’ He acts like it has nothing to do with him. It’s always the trainer, the owner, the groom, the gallop people.”
For an agent, it’s always about the rider.
“First, you’ve got to have a decent product,” Anderson said. “I’ve got people looking for Joel to ride, which makes my job a lot easier.”
He won three stakes on opening weekend at Santa Anita, and a first Eclipse would make him an even hotter commodity.
“We’ll see what happens,” Rosario said. “I’d love to win an Eclipse Award. It would be very special.”
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.