Joel Rosario will never forget his first visit to Saratoga Race Course. In August 2010, the young jockey arrived in Spa to ride Blind Luck in the historic Alabama Stakes in a race that would prove to be one of the most memorable editions of the mare classic ever. Rosario, then 25 and emerging as the dominant jockey on the California track, made all the right decisions that day to help Blind Luck defeat the sensational Havre de Grace in a thriller.

It was nothing short of a dramatic, cinematic victory: Even Blind Luck’s trainer, Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, worried about the pace of the race as it unfolded, but Rosario showed his uncanny sense of timing. With Blind Luck five lengths behind the leader and last through six furlongs of the 1¼-mile contest, Rosario was out cold. The time gaps, which Hollendorfer called “a little worrisome,” weren’t conducive to a late closer like Blind Luck. Rosario, however, knew when to push the button. “I felt very, very comfortable where I was at,” he said. “I was expecting a pretty slow pace, but I was behind them and watching.”

John Velazquez, riding Devil May Care, got his mare free on the home turn, allowing him to push her off for the home straight. But Rosario released Blind Luck at the same time, letting her roll to the outside as the field straightened for the home straight. The sense of when to pull the trigger is essential for a jockey, and few do it at Rosario’s elite level.

“I kind of warned Joel that Johnny was going to try to open him up a little bit at the beginning of the lane,” Hollendorfer said. “He kind of paid attention to that and moved a little bit earlier. It was probably a good move on his part.”

Rosario after winning the 2019 Belmont aboard Sir Winston (Photography by Susie Raisher)

As Devil May Care faded, Blind Luck surged. Under Rosario’s strong and confident handling, she took the lead at the sixteenth pole and crossed the wire a neck ahead of Havre de Grace. That triumph—before a crowd of 30,852—was Saratoga’s first glimpse of a superstar in the making.

“I had never been to Saratoga before Alabama, but I knew the track had a great reputation, and it certainly does,” Rosario said. “I knew right away that it was a special place and the racing was great. The fans really support it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of great experiences at Saratoga.”

That first exemplary ride is the kind Rosario has delivered consistently throughout his career, during which he has remained enamored of Saratoga. Fittingly, he will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame at the Saratoga meet on Aug. 2.

As a child, however, the athlete had a very different ambition: a place in the Hall of Fame.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Rosario dreamed of becoming the Caribbean nation’s next great baseball player. Maybe one day he’d hit a home run like David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero or fire lightning-fastballs like Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, all Dominican-born baseball players whose careers would lead them to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But by the time he reached his teens, Rosario had accepted the reality that he simply didn’t have the ideal physical attributes to make his diamond aspirations a reality.

“I loved playing baseball growing up,” he says. “It was my passion and I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t have that growth spurt that everyone else around me had. I had to find another dream, another path.”

That new path led Rosario to the racetrack, where the athleticism and strength he possessed in his small stature proved to be an ideal combination. Born in San Francisco de Macoris in 1985, Rosario was introduced to racing by his brother, Juan, at the Quinto Centenario Racetrack in Santo Domingo. At the age of 12, with his parents’ permission, Rosario began a two-year program at his country’s jockey school. He proved to be a quick learner and was competing by the age of 14. Within a year, Rosario was the lead rider at Quinto Centenario.

“We had horses on the farm where I grew up,” Rosario says. “I loved being with them. It felt natural to me when I started riding and I loved it. There’s no feeling that compares to riding a racehorse. It’s just incredible.”

After dominating the jockey ranks for five years in Quinto Centenario, Rosario moved to California in 2006 with the help of Dominican trainer and thoroughbred agent Herbert Soto. He started at the Los Angeles County Fair at Fairplex Park and then headed north to compete at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. Rosario had moderate success in his first year in America, winning 29 races from 219 mounts.

Rosario after a race at Saratoga on the first day of the 2024 Belmont Racing Festival (Photography by Shawn LaChapelle)

“When I first got to California, it was all about learning,” Rosario said. “There were ups and downs. I just had to stay patient, stay focused, work hard… try to get better every day.”

Rosario’s rise was meteoric. He rode 1,024 races in 2007, winning 154 (15 percent). His first graded victories came the following year, when he increased his win total to 193. Rosario rode five winners on one card at Hollywood Park in 2008, including the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap aboard Slew’s Tizzy for trainer Doug O’Neill. After his final ride at Hollywood that day, Rosario went straight to Puerto Rico to ride the colt Sicótico in the Clásico del Caribe (Caribbean Derby). Sicótico, bred in the Dominican Republic, had won that country’s Triple Crown earlier that year and carried a 16-win streak into the Clásico del Caribe.

With Rosario aboard, Sicótico closed late for a 1½ length victory. It was the first time a Dominican-bred horse had won the prestigious race and a proud moment for Rosario, who was mounted by Dominican trainer Eugenio Deschamps.

“That was a special experience,” Rosario said. “Winning a race like that for my country and a coach who really supported me at the beginning of my career meant a lot and was a great honor. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity.”

Rosario was just getting started. He won his first Breeders’ Cup race in 2009 at Santa Anita in the Sprint aboard Dancing in Silks for trainer Carla Gaines at odds of 25-1. Rosario rode 284 winners with his horses that year and earned more than $13 million.

“Winning that first Breeders’ Cup race was a huge success for me,” Rosario said. “It’s the championship event and it gave me a lot of confidence as I built momentum.”

From 2009 to 2011, Rosario won six consecutive titles at Hollywood Park. During that period, he also won three titles at Del Mar and two at Santa Anita. But instead of being content with his status as the king of the California tracks, Rosario was eager for a new challenge. He hired Ron Anderson as his agent and moved his tactics to New York in 2012.

“I love California, but I wanted some different opportunities and going to New York was the best decision for me,” Rosario says. “The timing was right to make the move. I’ve been working with Ron for about 12 years now and it’s been great. I’ve had some great experiences and been fortunate enough to ride some great horses for some great trainers.”

Rosario’s career took another level after the move. He won the $10 million Dubai World Cup in 2013 aboard Animal Kingdom for trainer Graham Motion and that year’s Kentucky Derby aboard Orb for Hall of Fame conditioner Shug McGaughey. He won the Belmont Stakes the following year aboard Tonalist for Christophe Clement and rode a second Belmont winner, Sir Winston, in 2019 for Hall of Famer Mark Casse. Rosario has also continued to flourish at the Breeders’ Cup: his 15 wins in the event include two editions of the Classic. Rosario’s 2021 Classic victory aboard Horse of the Year Knicks Go for Brad Cox capped his best year to date. He led all North American riders in earnings with $32,956,215 and was voted the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey.

Rosario with coach Gary Sciacca (Photography by Walter Wlodarczyk)

“I put a lot of effort into it because I want to be the best I can be for all the trainers and owners who believe in me, and I really try to take good care of the horses,” Rosario says. “The horses always give you everything they have and it’s a good thing I do. I study (their past performances), get as much information as I can from the trainers and really try to get to know the horses and make them feel comfortable with me. The horses have to trust you. The horse always comes first.”

Entering the 2024 Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, Rosario had ridden 3,623 winners for $320 million in career earnings. Only Hall of Famers Velazquez, Javier Castellano and Mike Smith have higher career earnings. When Rosario received news of his Hall of Fame induction in his first year of eligibility, he said it was an honor he was proud of and eager to share.

“You can’t do it alone,” he says. “You have to make the right decisions when you’re on the horse, but so many people have helped me in my career and given me the opportunities. I’m very grateful for that and of course for all the horses. Horses have given me everything.”

Outside of planning his speech and on induction day, Rosario says he won’t spend much time ruminating on the accomplishment. There will eventually come a time for that kind of reflection, but at just 39, Rosario is entrenched in his prime and at the top of his field.

“It’s going to be great to be in the Hall of Fame with so many great jockeys that I admire, but I’m still going to have to work as hard as I always have if I want to continue to do well,” Rosario said. “That’s not going to change. My approach is the same. I love to ride and compete with the best. I hope I can do that for a long time. I’m very blessed.”