Sports

The next generation of horse racing stars is arriving now

EquestrianMario GutierrezSportsPreakness StakesKentucky DerbyChad BrownJavier Castellano

Horse racing's center stage, the place where the industry's best jockeys and trainers reside, is getting crowded.

Ramon Dominguez, John Velazquez and current No. 1 jockey Javier Castellano may not be ready to exit stage left. Trainers Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen might not want to either.

But evolution happens in every sport. Here's a look at a few prospects who are making waves in horse racing's next generation.

For jockeys, ability and toughness count

In the jockey world California-based Joel Rosario, New York-based Rosie Napravnik and Kentucky Derby winner Mario Gutierrez are muscling for space.

Off in the wings, Maryland's Sheldon Russell, 24, took his first step toward the footlights this month with his first Derby ride, bringing Done Talking home 14thin the field of 20.

Once Napravnik was on the same early rise in Maryland. Now, she and Rosario and Gutierrez have stepped into prominence.

"When people ask my goal, it's exactly that, to be recognized as one of the excellent riders, to be like Johnny Velazquez," said Napravnik, a former Hereford student who made a major statement when she won the Grade I Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 4. "I want everyone to recognize me by my accomplishments."

Rosario, who will be riding co-third choice Creative Cause in the Preakness on Saturday, and Gutierrez, who rodeI'll Have Another to victory in the Kentucky Derby and will have the second favorite again here, want the same.

"In Joel, I have a rider who is breaking out into a superstar in the country," said Ronnie Ebanks, a former jockey who has been a jockey agent for 25 years. "He's been in this country five years and taken California by storm. He's dominated the last two years, being the leading rider at every meet but one."

Rosario has also won two Breeders' Cup races and has ridden in three Kentucky Derbys, with his best finish a fourth in 2010 on Make Music For Me.

"I see no better younger rider out there," Ebanks said.

All three riders are recognized as incredibly humble and nice off the track, but on track, it is ability and toughness that count.

Retired Hall of Fame jockey and television commentator Jerry Bailey has watched all three. He said Rosario is as strong as Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. ever was and is poised and cool.

"My only criticism is that he sometimes loses too much ground," Bailey said. "Many, many successful riders took the wide route, but I think it can cost you a race."

About Napravnik, Bailey said she is motivated and driven, "And she rides like a guy. It's the most serious form of flattery I can give. I can always pick out the girls riding in a race in a heartbeat, but I can't pick her out in a race."

Gutierrez, he has earned an opportunity to go to a higher level, but can he make something of it? Two year's ago, Martin Garcia won the Preakness for Bob Baffert on Lookin At Lucky, but he wasn't able to maintain the momentum. Neither was Jeremy Rose, who won on Afleet Alex in 2005. Like many others, they've had difficulty getting big horses since.

"I have a long way to go," said Gutierrez, 25, who was on few radars before the Derby victory. "I'm so young, but I want to be like Laffit Pincay, one of the best. .... I try not to think too much about it. But I want to earn the recognition and one day be like those great jockeys — if I'm lucky. We'll see what happens."

Trainers challenged, too

In the training world, much is the same. Jack van Berg, D. Wayne Lukas, Bobby Frankel saw trainers like Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen come along and push them aside.

Now Jamie Ness, who keeps one of his three strings of horses in Maryland, is leading all trainers in wins this year (167); New York trainer Chad Brown ranks sixth on the trainers' list; and California-based Doug O'Neill, who has been a force at Fairplex Park (Pomona, Calif.) for nearly a decade, has taken a major step on the national stage by directing I'll Have Another to victory in the Kentucky Derby. All three are positioned to be leaders in the emerging generation.

O'Neill, 43, is already approaching the status of the elite.

His horses have won three Eclipse Awards, and he's turned a $50,000 claimer, Lava Man, into a seven-time Grade I winner. But O'Neill said he still thinks of himself as up-and-coming, and this is his first time on the sport's biggest stage, the Triple Crown circuit.

"I like to think I'm getting better as a trainer every day," O'Neill said. "These horses teach you so much, if you're willing to listen. To be recognized as an up-and-coming trainer, it takes a lot of experience and a lot of confidence. And you have to want to. You have to enjoy hanging out at the barn all day, every day."

Many trainers start as O'Neill did, as an assistant. Brown, 33, did, learning from Bobby Frankel. He started out on his own in 2008 and won the first race he entered at Saratoga Race Course. He's been building on it ever since.

Ness took a different route to recognition, teaching himself.

"I'm living proof that hard work and determination will get you there [to the top]," Ness, 37, said. "I made a lot of mistakes, but I tried never to repeat one."

Last year his 330 wins were second best in the country. This year, his 167 are 35 more than his nearest competitor, Steve Asmussen. His horses are winning 37 percent of the time, and that's better than anyone else in the top 100 of the trainer rankings.

"When I started, I didn't know what I was doing," Ness said. "I struggled as I tried to make it work. The key was getting good horses. Now, we're No. 1 in the country in wins. Every year we're trying to get better. Some day, I hope to be in the Preakness."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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