Ramón Domínguez has always been a perfect fit in Saratoga Springs.
During his illustrious career as a jockey at Saratoga Race Course, Domínguez set multiple records with his extraordinary athletic prowess, and became one of horse racing’s most beloved superstars because of his incomparable work ethic, humble nature and engaging personality. He always made time for a genuine conversation with a fan, had a willingness to pose for a photograph or offered a smile and an autograph for a child. None of what fame brings—nothing—ever seemed to bother him.
That’s why I’ll never forget Domínguez’s powerful, emotional response when I called him in the spring of 2016 to tell him he’d earned Thoroughbred racing’s highest honor: induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame right here in Saratoga. (Making these calls to the few individuals who’ve reached racing’s pinnacle is one of the parts of my job I enjoy most.) When I told him he’d been inducted, Domínguez immediately deflected the praise from himself to the owners and trainers who supported him throughout his career, as well as his longtime agent, Steve Rushing, who introduced Domínguez at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony that summer. Above all else, Domínguez commended the horses he rode for their courage and determination, and his family for their encouragement and support through both good and difficult times.
Domínguez, now 42, has been retired from riding for more than five years. On January 18, 2013, he suffered a terrible injury during a race at Aqueduct Racetrack. Approaching the top of the stretch aboard a horse named Convocation, Domínguez was looking for an opening to get his horse through a busy field—but it never materialized, and Convocation got tangled with another horse, throwing Domínguez violently to the ground. He was diagnosed with multiple skull fractures and a traumatic brain injury. Throughout his recovery and rehabilitation process, Domínguez always believed he’d return to riding. Five months after the injury, though, his doctor advised him that if he were to suffer another injury, it could prove catastrophic. So in his prime, his career was effectively over.
The news was jarring for an athlete who was at the top of his profession and appeared to still be getting better. At the time, Domínguez had earned three consecutive Eclipse Awards as the top rider in North America. He’d won 4985 races, including 160 graded stakes, compiling purse earnings of $191 million. At Saratoga in 2012 alone, only months before his injury, Domínguez set the track record with 68 wins for a single meeting. That summer, he also equaled the track standard of six wins on a single card. Toward the end of the summer, Domínguez rallied the stand-out colt, Alpha, to finish in a dead heat with Golden Ticket in The Travers Stakes. By the end of the year, Domínguez had set a new record for purse earnings in a single year, at more than $25.5 million.
Domínguez is forthright when he talks about the immediate aftermath of his injury-forced retirement: “For a while, I really wanted to stay away from racing,” he says, “I didn’t go to the track and I kept my distance from it all. I owe my wife a lot for encouraging me and giving me strength to be around the track and the sport again. It wasn’t easy. It took time and a change in mindset, but I came to realize that I was extremely blessed to have accomplished the things I did and to have been a jockey for as long as I was. Racing gave me so much and it never owed me anything.”
Slowly but surely, Domínguez returned to the sport and culture of racing. He has since become an ambassador for the game and an accomplished motivational speaker. He’s eloquently shared his stories and philosophies with a variety of people, speaking on topics such as overcoming obstacles, the psychology of success and learning from mistakes. He recently spoke to a rapt audience at the Equestricon horse racing convention during Breeders’ Cup week in Louisville, KY. “Racing will always be in my blood and something that I am passionate about. I will try to give back to the sport in any way I can and be a positive presence,” Domínguez said. “Racing has so many great people in it, and we need to tell our stories and promote what we’re all about to bring new fans into the game. I want to be a part of that.”
In his retirement, he’s also come full circle, deciding to move his family to Saratoga. “I’ve always loved Saratoga, both the track and the city, and being inducted into the Hall of Fame was something that I never could’ve imagined when I began riding,” says Domínguez, who originally hails from Caracas. “I certainly didn’t do it alone. I always looked forward to each summer at Saratoga, because the racing is the best—the best jockeys, best trainers, best horses, best fans. The competition forces you to be sharp every day in every race. Your mind and your concentration have to be right to succeed at that level. I loved everything about it. When you combine that with the passion of the people in Saratoga and their love for the sport, it’s an easy place to fall in love with.”
Just a few months ago, he and his wife, Sharon, decided the time was right to move from Floral Park on Long Island to Saratoga. Domínguez knew there’d be an adjustment period, as their children, Matthew and Alex, got acclimated to a new school and new friends, but the family has since settled in, and are in the midst of their first holiday season as Saratogians. “There’s still a lot to do around the house, boxes and things to put away, but it has been great, and the boys are fitting in and getting used to it all and so are Sharon and I,” Domínguez tells me. “We’re really happy here, and we love everything that Saratoga has to offer. There are so many things to do and experience and so many opportunities to take advantage of. We’re really blessed to be a part of it, and this is where we wanted to raise our family.”
Besides acting as a racing ambassador and motivational speaker, Domínguez is also trying his hand at the horse racing business—this time, from the ground up. He’s been working on designing a new riding crop—i.e., the short whip jockeys use to spur on their horses—which he hopes will be introduced into the sport within a few months. “There really haven’t been any changes to the crop since about 2008, and it’s important to always be looking for ways to increase safety and reduce the risk of injury for horses and jockeys,” says Domínguez. “These new crops are also more cushioned, to reduce impact and lessen the chance of harming the horse. This design also won’t absorb water. It’s something I’m really excited about.”
Additionally, Domínguez is involved with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, and logs occasional media work for outlets such as the Horse Racing Radio Network. (Whoever said retirement had to be idle time?) When he’s not focusing on racing, Domínguez is enjoying his new home. “I’m learning more about Saratoga all the time, and it’s been a great experience for our family,” he says. “I’ve joined a running club and I’ve been checking out all the great culture and history of the area. There’s plenty to keep us busy. We absolutely love it here.”
This horse racing legend, this Ramón Domínguez sounds like a real Saratogian to us. Welcome home.