For those who don’t follow horse racing, it’s difficult to explain what Ramon Dominguez has meant to the sport and it’s even harder to quantify the impact of his sudden retirement in June. I have found myself comparing Dominguez’s retirement to those of Michael Jordan and Barry Sanders, who both walked away from their respective sports in their prime. The only difference would be that Dominguez didn’t have any say in his retirement. The decision was made by doctors after the champion jockey suffered a major brain injury in a racing accident earlier this year.
I remember watching the race, which was at Aqueduct on January 18th. As soon as Convocation (the horse Dominguez was on) went down, I remember thinking, ‘that didn’t look good at all.’ While the early reports on his injuries sounded as disturbing as the spill looked, Dominguez was released from a hospital in February and was said to be recovering well. By March, there were reports of him hoping to begin working horses again. However, his doctors never felt comfortable clearing him to ride. In June, Dominguez announced his retirement.
Dominguez, 36, hung up his tack while still widely regarded as the best jockey in North America. Just a few weeks after sustaining his injury, he won his third straight outstanding jockey of the year Eclipse Award. He walked away from racing with a trio of Breeder’s Cup wins and dozens of other major stakes victories. Dominguez was just 15 wins away from 5,000, a milestone reached by only 25 riders in North American history. Most of the jockeys on that list rode significantly more races than Dominguez. For example, Calvin Borel has 5,040 career wins but he’s ridden more than 34,000 races. Dominguez got his wins in just 21, 267 races.
While the numbers provide some perspective, they don’t do justice to what Dominguez has meant to racing. Ten days ago, he was honored at Laurel Park. He accepted a check on behalf of the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund (PDJF), a charity which has become one of his main focuses since retiring. After presenting him with the check, VP of Communications for the Maryland Jockey Club, Mike Gathagan, noted what many others have in recent months, “as good of a rider as (Dominguez) was, he’s an even better human being.”
I learned just how good of a human being Dominguez is when I interviewed him after his visit to Laurel. I wanted to simply put together a story about how he was doing and what his plans were for the future. But in talking to Dominguez, he opened up with so many incredible details about what he’s been through that I didn’t feel it adequate to edit anything from his responses. Therefore, I decided to log our entire interview and transcribe it below as a Q & A for the reading convenience and pleasure of every horse racing fan who deeply cares for Dominguez, not just the rider but the person.
DanonymousRacing (DR): First off, what was it like being back at Laurel?
Ramon Dominguez (RD): It was wonderful. Especially being in the jockey’s room and talking to everyone there. They were very supportive and it made me feel good to see so many of them. From the jocks room, I moved to the ceremony in the winner’s circle. It was great to see lots of fans whose faces and voices I really remembered from my days of riding in Maryland. Some of them were like, “oh, I don’t know if you remember me.” I certainly did and told them, “of course, I remember you!” Then, I went to the grandstand, where I spent about an hour to an hour and a half signing some things and a lot of fans came. It was the same thing there. It was just a great feeling recognizing some of them.
Also, quite a few horsemen, owners and trainers stopped by and, actually, some grooms as well. It was just a very positive experience overall to connect back to so many people and also to go back to some great memories. Some grooms were like, “oh, I don’t know if you remember my horse…” And, one thing about me is that I don’t have a really great memory for most things but when it comes to horses, because it’s something I’ve always been passionate about, I’m able to remember horses who didn’t necessarily make it to stakes races. I still remember them. It is special, not only to me but also to all of the people involved with those horses, who said to me, “I can’t believe you remember that!” So, that’s always exciting.
DR: Your memory isn’t much different than a lot of us, not good for most things but good when it comes to horses…
RD: (Laughs) Actually, saying that my memory is not that good on many things is an understatement. My memory is pretty bad for most things. But for horses, it’s actually pretty good.
DR: Speaking of memories, I heard you mention that your best memory at Laurel was winning the De Francis Dash in 2003 (on A Huevo)?
RD: Yeah, when it comes to my career highlights at Laurel, definitely winning the De Francis. As a jockey, you always dream of winning a Grade 1, winning a big race and, at that point, I had been riding in Maryland for a while and you don’t necessarily know if that’s going to happen. When I was able to win that race (Dominguez’s first Grade 1 win), it was definitely exciting for me and something that will stay in my memory forever.
DR: In addition to being honored at Laurel, you were also honored at Delaware a few weeks back and New York. Any other stops for recognition or visits to other tracks planned?
RD: No, not right now. New York, Maryland and Delaware, those were the circuits I was able to ride and they happened to all want to do something for me. But that’s all that is planned for now.
DR: I know that a major aspect of these appearances has been to raise awareness about the PDJF. If you would, just explain why you’ve been vocal on behalf of the PDJF and what message you want to get out there?
RD: For one thing, it has been nice, whether it’s been an award or just being recognized at these tracks. But simultaneously it has also been awesome to raise awareness and funds for the PDJF. The message is really, as an industry, we are involved and should be even more involved with helping the PDJF. There are currently roughly 60 recipients of PDJF assistance and these guys really need our help, it’s as simple as that. The way that they get help is through donations, like at Laurel, where we did the signing and people could donate there, or just individual donations that come into the PDJF. It’s just something I’m passionate about doing. Before my accident, of course I was aware of how important the PDJF was but now I’ve come to have a greater appreciation these days. I also have an understanding that those guys have been less fortunate. Just to make it clear, I am not a PDJF recipient. What I get out of the PDJF these days is the satisfaction of being able to help any way I can.
DR: Ramon, we’ve spoken about some of your best memories in Maryland but when you look back on your career overall, what moment or horse stands out the most to you?
RD: Winning my first Breeder’s Cup was something that will always be among the highlights of my career. Emotionally, just felt so great to win with Better Talk Now in 2004 but I could also say the same for the other two Breeder’s Cup wins. As a jockey, that’s something you look forward to every year, just hoping you have a chance to ride a Breeder’s Cup race, let alone win it. So, those are always very exciting. But riding horses like Gio Ponti and Havre de Grace, those are really the reasons we get up in the morning – in the hope to ride a horse like that and if you’re lucky enough to win, that’s even better. So, it’s hard to put emphasis on just one horse or one moment. Maybe some jockeys have one that they say, “oh yeah, definitely this one.” Those who have been fortunate enough to win a Kentucky Derby, I’m sure that’s on top of their list. For me, it’s hard to just single one out. Definitely, the Breeder’s Cups are on top.
DR: As a New Yorker, I’m curious what you miss most about riding there? Is it just being in the jock’s room, the crazy fans that are up near the rail everyday or just the thrill and enjoyment of riding? Of those things, what do you identify with most as something you miss on a daily basis?
RD: Well, there are many things. For one, of course being in the jockey’s room and interacting with my valet or the other jockeys. We had so much in common in there, trying to win races and, at the same time, that really becomes your second home. You spend so much time weekly and every year that it becomes your second family. That’s something that I miss but I have been able to keep in touch with a lot of them, we have gone out to eat. So, it’s not like I went from one extreme to another. The riding part is definitely something that I will really miss because I absolutely love the interaction with the horses and trying to come up with a strategy to win a race. Of course, if you happen to win the race, it’s rewarding. Especially, if you feel like you maybe made a difference or if your plan actually did work or the instructions that they gave you worked, that’s something that I do miss. Winning a race, the excitement of winning a race, that’s something that’s really hard to describe. That’s a big part of why we do it. Aside from the financial aspect, just winning, passing the wire and having a plan that worked out, that’s always something that is extremely exciting and something that I do miss. Also, you know, there’s a period that you have to go through, which I feel like pretty much I have done so far. You feel like you are identified with your profession and then, it is really, there’s a big change, to say the least. At the same time, at this point, I am looking toward the future and many exciting ways to see what is next. I cannot just be thinking about, ‘oh, it was great the times that I had doing this and that.’ Those times have helped me to be where I’m at and along the way I have been able to establish many relationships and that’s something that’s not over.
DR: Speaking of the strong relationships you have and also looking ahead to what’s next, a lot of people would like to speculate about what is, in fact, next for you. I’ve heard people say that you would make a great jockey’s agent. Is that something that would even interest you? What are some of the ideas you’re weighing?
RD: You know, there are a few things in the works. I just don’t exactly know if being a jockey agent is something I will want to do in the future. It just doesn’t make me go like, “wow, that’s something I want to do.” And that’s because, of course, one thing you have to take into consideration is that I’ve been able to do, thank God, what I had been dreaming about doing since I was a little kid. I fulfilled my dream and I was doing it for so many years. It’s not like I was prepared to be retired now. So, it is hard to really kind of be passionate about something else now. That’s something that, I guess, it grows with time. The one thing that I will love to do, even if it’s in another capacity, is to be involved in horse racing because that something that I like, I love horse racing. I just don’t know exactly what that (role in racing) is right now.
DR: That’s understandable. This is all still new and there’s going to be that period, which you mentioned. Physically though, I’ve heard that you just started to do a little more activity.
RD: Yes. The doctors cleared me to start jogging. Just really taking it easy and slowly starting to start jogging. As a jockey, jogging was my way of losing weight. That’s something that I do miss, not the losing weight part but just being active. In many ways, I went from one extreme to another, from being very active to right now being sort of being sedentary. Slowly, I’m going to start doing more, and jogging is something that I’m very happy about doing again.
DR: A lot of people all over the place have you in their thoughts. So lastly, what would you say to them? To all of these fans who care about you so much?
RD: What I can say is that I’m happy. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my life. I can sincerely say that from the time of my first memory after my accident (which was a few weeks after), I started receiving letters and messages from fans and that really helped me a lot emotionally. It made me feel so good because most of those letters weren’t only directed at the professional aspect of my persona. It was really just wishing me well. A lot of them were just letting me know that I was in their prayers and that better things were to come. It was just something that made me smile a lot. Just knowing how much I was really cared about by people, I just want to tell them “thank you” and that we’ll continue to be seeing each other down the line. I don’t know exactly in what capacity but I would love to continue being involved in horse racing, in some way.
We thank Ramon Dominguez for sharing some time with DanonymousRacing.com. We wish him the best in his rehabilitation and urge all racing fans, who have the ability to do so, to support Ramon and his efforts with the PDJF.
Interview and Report compiled by Dan Tordjman/DanonymousRacing.com