"There are seven or eight good horses, but I wouldn't trade horses with any of them," Pino said yesterday. "I know it's the Derby, and I'm not knocking any other horse in the race. But I wouldn't trade places."
What are the odds of all this happening to him in just over a year?
"It's like a 1,000-1 shot," Pino said. "It's so far-fetched."
He has ridden more than 36,000 races, but this is no journeyman just getting his shot at the big leagues. Since Pino won his first race as a 17-year-old on Jan. 16, 1979, he has triumphed 5,889 times. With a couple of good days, he'll pass Jerry Bailey for 16th place on the sport's all-time list. He already is the sport's second-winningest active rider, behind Russell Baze.
Just this year, horses he has ridden have won more than $1.8 million.
A lot of that was from Hard Spun, who has won five of six career starts, including two of three this year. Pino admitted that he worried before Hard Spun came along that he might wind up on a list for winningest jockeys never to ride in the Derby.
"You wake up in the morning thinking about it," Pino said of Saturday's race, talking as he ate lunch last week at Delaware Park. "You go to bed thinking about it."
Yesterday, Pino flew in and rode Hard Spun at Churchill Downs in a blazing five-furlong workout officially clocked at 57.60 seconds. Churchill Downs reported that it was the fastest Derby-week workout in 33 years.
Plenty will say "too fast," but Pino insisted that it wasn't, that his horse did it easily, that this horse was special.
"The time was quick, but he did it with his ears up in the air," Pino said over the phone, after he had flown home in time for the second race at Delaware Park yesterday. "He handled the track beautifully."
Like his horse, Pino spent part of his youth in Chester County. Hard Spun, a son of Danzig, is a Pennsylvania-bred, born in Malvern. The jockey, a Wilmington native, moved to West Grove when his father bought a farm there when Mario was about 9 years old.
"Me and my brothers worked hard, too, taking care of the horses," Pino said. "We were like 7, 8 and 9 years old."
None of them ever really left the barn. One brother, Mike, now trains horses at Delaware Park. Brother Mark is a blacksmith at Delaware Park and the Fair Hill Training Center.
Mario was the first to move into the sport professionally. He remembers a family friend taking him to Delaware Park. They watched the races from the eighth pole. Pino knew what he wanted to do for a living.
Asked what made his brother a good jockey, Mike Pino said: "A lot of things go into that. But growing up, he was always a winner, no matter what we did. That's probably the main ingredient. Basketball, baseball, whatever. He wrestled his freshman year [at St. Mark's High School in Delaware]. He didn't know anything about wrestling, but he was undefeated."
He's spent most of his career riding the Maryland tracks but added the Delaware Park meet to his list in 2004. That led him to Hard Spun, since trainer Larry Jones pretty much began working with the horse and the jockey at the same time after moving to Delaware Park from Kentucky last year.
Pino remembers Jones saying even before Pino ever worked the horse that Hard Spun might be worthy of the Derby. Pino said he had also heard that more than a few times over the years.
Jones talked about Pino's experience being invaluable, about his ability to read a horse and know where to place it. All along, Jones made it clear that Pino was the jockey for Hard Spun. The subject came up last year, Hard Spun's owner, Rick Porter, said.
"Larry talked about how good a rider he is, that he thinks he can ride with the best of them," Porter said last week.
The Pino camp obviously knew that agents for top jockeys often make inquiries about promising 2-year-olds.
"In any business, you should never overestimate yourself, and I don't underestimate the competition," said Pino's agent, Bill Castle.
Over the years, Pino had opportunities to ride in New York and other places, but leaving his wife and three daughters, now 19, 14 and 11 years old, didn't make sense to him. They were settled outside Baltimore. They're all athletes. How many of their games would he have had to miss? It took him a couple of years to persuade himself to go as far as Delaware Park, he said.
After winning the Illinois Derby last year, Sweetnorthernsaint was seventh in the Kentucky Derby after a tough trip - not that he was going to catch Barbaro - and then second behind Bernardini at the Preakness. Kent Desormeaux rode all those races, although Pino is back on the horse now.
He knows that tomorrow's post-position draw is vital because of the 20-horse Derby field. He's been studying his competition, he said, watching all the Derby prep races. He knows that the Kentucky Derby can be won or lost before the first turn.
"I think you have to make a couple of moves in the Derby," Pino said. "You have to be able to move, and move again. You have to have a special horse."
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen
at 215-854-4489 or email@example.com.