Maryland’s own Mario Pino won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in February. Voted by his peers, Pino bested Javier Castellano, Perry Compton, David Flores and Rodney Prescott. Named after jockey George “The Iceman” Woolf and established by Santa Anita in 1950, the award “honors riders whose careers and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.”
Maryland’s all-time leading rider, Pino became racing’s 10th winningest jockey in September. He’s closing in on 6,500 career victories.
Pino took a break and moved to Florida for the winter but planned to return to a full-time schedule at Presque Isle Downs in the spring. Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred’s Sean Clancy caught up with the 51-year-old jockey in February.
MAT: What did you think when it was announced?
MP: It’s a great honor. I was a little bit surprised, I had been nominated four times and hadn’t won it, I thought maybe if I have a chance, it’s this time. It’s special, because it’s the whole jockey community, across the United States, for them to pick me, it makes it really special. You look at all those guys, Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens. To be on that list. it’s a special thing, you’re going down in history.
MAT: Who were your mentors when you started?
MP: I used to always see Mr. (Bill) Passmore, we had the same valet, I always watched him; in the race, after the race, maybe it was a close one, maybe he got beat, maybe something happened in the race, he’d come back and he never got mad, he was always even keeled. People used to really look up to him, people really respected him. I was like, “This guy never gets mad.” He wasn’t boisterous, he was always cool. He was somebody I always watched and tried to emulate, “That’s who I’m going to be.” He was my idol around there. He helped me out a lot, just by looking at him and seeing what he did. He’s a legend over there in Maryland. There are a few legends, but he was one of them.
MAT: Now you’re a legend.
MP: Now I’m the old guy. Oh well. It’s all good. I’m proud of myself, my career, just staying steady, at times when maybe I didn’t feel like going, everybody would say, “This guy never stops.” The numbers are there, I always pushed myself, always tried to do the best I can, be prepared for every race I rode, I went out there ready. I don’t care what race it was, what horse it was, if it was the Kentucky Derby or a maiden $8,000, I was prepared for what I was going to do, I won some races because I was prepared. The horses do the running, but a lot of races I won by just knowing where to be and when to move, those little things that could make you win or make you lose. I never wanted to get beat by not being ready.
MAT: How difficult was it to make adjustments, moving to Delaware Park, Presque Isle?
MP: When I went to Presque Isle the first time, I was a little skeptical but I love riding on the Tapeta track, it’s good to ride on, I got up there and was like, “Wow.” I like the track, I had some good outfits, riding for Jonathan Sheppard and other good outfits shipping in. Maryland wasn’t running at that time. I got the opportunity to go up there, I tried it, liked it, and this will be my fifth year going back.
MAT: But what about Maryland?
MP: I’ve been there a long time, I got connections somewhere else and I went with it, Maryland is my home, Maryland is in my heart from the beginning, that’s where my career was made, it was a great place to raise my family, but things change in life, it’s still fine with me. Maryland’s a great place still, the opportunity went this way and I took it.
MAT: What’s next?
MP: It’s the first time I’ve had this much time off, because I set my goal to be 10th, I said I’d take all winter off, it’s something I accomplished, I did it and worked hard to do it, it was a good time to relax, reflect on what I did and now I’m ready to start back up there in May. I’m riding a few at Gulfstream, to get my feet wet, get back in the groove and I’ll start full time at Presque Isle. I feel good, I love riding and I love the competition. I feel good, I feel like I have it in me, I’m in good shape, I’m still fine. It doesn’t faze me that I’m 51 years old. I’m not broke down, at the end, just hanging on. I have confidence in myself that I can still ride, I just want to take it time-by-time and see how far I go. As long as I enjoy it and I feel good, there’s no reason why I should stop.