Whether Riding in The Big 'Cap or the Nightcap, Rosario Is a Master of Timing

Joel Rosario | Equi-Sport

The Week in Review, by T.D. Thornton

Generally speaking, when your horse is parked near last for most of the trip, fanned six wide on the far turn, fifth with a furlong to go, and still third 100 yards from the wire, your chances of winning are slim.

Unless Joel Rosario is riding, of course.

That was the exact scenario facing Idol (Curlin) in deep stretch of Saturday's GI Santa Anita H. at Santa Anita Park. Yet “Judicious Joel,” who at age 36 is without fanfare blossoming into the absolute master of timing in modern American racing, was once again confidently capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

If and when in-race wagering arrives on a large scale here in the States, discerning bettors are going to make a killing taking vastly overlaid odds on the late runners that Rosario rides, knowing that if the horse has it in him to close a seemingly insurmountable gap, Rosario is going to elicit that effort in the most efficient way possible.

Yes, the “Big 'Cap” has lost some of its luster over the last several decades because of the glut of global big-money races now scheduled during the first quarter of the year.

In 1996, the “world's richest race” lure of the G1 Dubai World Cup first made a dent in the stature of North America's premier dirt race for older horses.

Then the 2017 advent of the GI Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park coincided with The Stronach Group's trimming of the Big Cap's purse at sister track Santa Anita from its $1-million level and the selling of the race's sponsorship rights to a casino.

The arrival of the $20-million Saudi Cup in 2020 further crowded the international calendar at the Big 'Cap's expense. The 2021 edition run 10 days ago siphoned away America's top two older dirt males, Knicks Go (Paynter) and Charlatan (Speightstown), the latter of whom is stabled right at Santa Anita but instead shipped hallway around the planet to run for absurdly more purse money.

Yet even diminished, the Big 'Cap still resonates at a certain level of importance. Just ask an emotional Richard Baltas, Idol's trainer, who had to compose himself before saying in the winner's circle interview that “I've been coming here since I was 13 years old. Before I even got to be a horse trainer, I saw all the greats run here in the Big 'Cap and you never think that you're going to be here, but you keep working hard and God blessed you.”

Idol ended up winning the Big 'Cap by a well-timed half a length, which is a comparatively wide margin of victory for Rosario in Santa Anita's showcase race, which he has now won three years in a row.

In 2020, Rosario was aboard Combatant (Scat Daddy), who won the Big 'Cap by a neck with a stalking trip and a four-wide sweep off the turn.

In 2019, partnering with Gift Box (Twirling Candy), Rosario forced the issue on the front end, then held off a late charge by the 2-5 favorite to prevail by a nose.

The Big 'Cap victory Saturday boosted Rosario's wins in graded stakes races in 2021 to nine. You'd have to add together the totals of his next two closest rivals (Irad Ortiz Jr. and Luis Saez, who have five each) to top that fast start through the first 11 weeks of the year.

When Rosario doesn't win a graded stakes, he's infrequently far off the hunt. He's hit the board with nine other graded stakes mounts, which puts him at an ultra-impressive nation-leading 18-for-24 (75%) in-the-money clip among jockeys with at least 10 graded stakes starts.

Overall, those nine graded stakes wins account for 28% of all of Rosario's 32 victories this season so far.

“I knew [Idol] wanted all of a mile and a quarter, and the jockey made a bit of a difference too,” Baltas said. “We needed all of Rosario's power in the stretch to get him home.”

But while Baltas emphasized Rosario's strength, that's only part of his skill set. Even more remarkable is how Rosario meshes that power with patience.

He's also one of the most selective riders in the game about employing his stick. Although no one keeps statistics on this sort of thing, I'd be willing to wager that Rosario leads the nation in cocking his crop, looking back quickly to get a sense of where his stretch competition is, then putting the whip away after making a split-second decision that it's not needed.

Barely a half-hour after his emphatic win aboard Idol, Rosario gave another prime example of how to eke out a victory in disciplined fashion.

Riding the layoff maiden Defunded (Dialed In), Rosario sat chilly while eighth in a 12-horse field, biding his time atop a second-time starter who had been fractious as the beaten favorite under another jockey in his only other start.

Nudged to pick up the pace around the far turn, Defunded quickly inhaled half the field and had built enough steam to launch into contention at the top of the stretch. But he bumped and brushed repeatedly while bulling through traffic, and Rosario had to snatch his mount off the heels of a tiring foe, a move that might have been a momentum-staller for other riders.

Yet Rosario deftly kept his mount focused and barreling forward onward under a hand ride without overreacting and resorting to the whip. The pair coasted home to a measured half-length win at 8-1 odds, underscoring that whether it's the Big 'Cap or just an ordinary nightcap, “Judicious Joel” is truly on a roll.

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