Joel Rosario rides Creative Cause to victory in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa… (Benoit Photo )
Joel Rosario fits on the back of a racehorse as perfectly as a carrot fits in a snowman's face.
He is Nicklaus with a five-iron in his hand, Crenshaw with a putter. If this were hockey, he'd be the Great One.
He is fast becoming that in horse racing.
Rosario will ride 12 horses in this weekend's Breeders' Cup, and even though none of them were given morning-line odds of better than 6-1, gamblers are likely to give his horses more action than their odds may deserve. That's because Rosario will be in the saddle.
Horsemen are generous with their praise for the 28-year-old Dominican, who is one of 13 children and the only jockey of international stature from his country.
Veteran trainer Barclay Tagg told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "He's as good a jockey as I've seen for coming through the field, making the right move."
Shug McGaughey, the trainer for whom Rosario won the Kentucky Derby this year aboard Orb, says, "The biggest thing is, he is patient with the horse. He has something left for the end."
Jockey Mike Smith, who has 13 Breeders' Cup rides himself and who rode for several years against Rosario in the Southern California jockey colony until Rosario went east a year ago, says, "He has great rhythm. He is very good at staying clear, and sometimes that's the hardest thing to do."
Rosario's biggest booster has a financial stake in being so. But agent Ron Anderson also has the credentials to be credible, having spent more than four decades in the sport and, to date, had his riders win 26 Breeders' Cup and 13 Triple Crown races.
"Joel is an amazing kid," Anderson says. "He's not a prima donna. He's appreciative about everything he has. If you listen to most athletes, they talk mainly about themselves. Not Joel. If you praise him for a ride, he will tell you how good his filly was that day."
Anderson has carried the book for the likes of Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens and Garrett Gomez and says the great jockeys have that intangible.
"To begin with, they are all athletes," Anderson says. "Then, they all have a sixth sense. Joel has that."
Rosario's pre-Breeders' Cup story, however, is less about greatness and more about uncertainty. He suffered an injury in late August that makes his presence on 12 horses in the 14 Breeders' Cup races somewhat surprising.
And then, in the third race at Santa Anita on Thursday, he was unseated in the backstretch, when Square Dancer clipped heels and went down. Rosario stayed down awhile, then rose and walked to the ambulance and eventually was cleared to ride again in the fifth race, which he won.
But his major injury was Aug. 23 at Saratoga. He was riding a filly named Casual Elegance in the seventh race. He had a big weekend ahead, with rides scheduled on Orb in the Travers at Saratoga on Saturday and Game On Dude in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday.
It was to be a weekend of lots of travel and, most likely, lots of financial reward. At the time, he was already leading the country's jockey standings with 237 wins and nearly $17 million in purses.
Then, shortly after crossing the finish line well out of the money after a troubled race, Casual Elegance stumbled and threw Rosario, who landed hard on his left foot.
"I was worried right away," Rosario says. "It felt bad, and then I couldn't get up."
Anderson didn't see it happen. He was near the racing office at Saratoga. "A friend of mine called," Anderson says, "and said my jockey was down and he wasn't getting up."
The next morning, Anderson and Rosario went to Albany, where Rosario was seen by Dr. Richard Alfred, a friend of Anderson's and a former training camp physician for the New York Giants. "I figured," Anderson says, "that these athletes, they wrap some tape on the ankle and go out and play. But when they took the ACE bandage off and I saw the swelling, I knew it was bad."
Rosario, with a fractured bone in his left foot, was put in a cast that Alfred said would stay on for six weeks.
Immediately, the thoughts of Anderson and Rosario went to the Breeders' Cup. Possibly missing out on two days of racing worth $25 million in purses is crushing.
But the cast came off in six weeks and Rosario was back riding in seven. He is now third in the country in the jockey standings in purses behind Javier Castellano and John Velazquez, and would be first if racing still factored in money won at the Dubai World Cup. Rosario won that $10-million race in March, aboard Animal Kingdom.
The Breeders' Cup rides for Rosario were, according to Anderson, "kind of thrown together," somewhat explaining the large number of longer-odds horses.
"A month ago, I wasn't sure," Anderson says.
Rosario is mostly grateful. "I'm surprised I have as many rides as I do," he says. "It just shows how nice people have treated me.
"The long odds don't bother me so much. If you are going to win, you are going to win."
Rosario has won only one Breeders' Cup race, the 2009 Sprint. But 12 starts this weekend hint at that changing. Expect Joel Rosario to appear in the winner's circle at Santa Anita.
It just feels like a perfect fit.