Ramon Dominguez, who announced his retirement Thursday, was the best jockey in America. I realize that's more opinion than fact, but I don't see how anyone could argue otherwise.
Dominguez won three straight Eclipse Awards, from 2010 through 2012, as the nation's top jockey, but there's more to his story of excellence than that. What he did day-in and day-out was ride against one of the best jockey colonies ever assembled and dominate.
The 2012 spring meet at Belmont figured to present Dominguez with a big challenge. With the purses having recently undergone a dramatic increase in New York because of the opening of the casino at Aqueduct, Julien Leparoux and Rosie Napravnik came to town to join what was already a deep jockey colony with the likes of Javier Castellano, John Velazquez and Jose Lezcano. It seemed impossible that anyone could stand out from such a celebrated pack.
But Dominguez did. He won the meet with 70 winners (10 more than Castellano) and his 23 percent win rate was also tops among all riders. Joel Rosario headed east to join the group for Saratoga 2012, and it was more of the same, with Dominguez leading in every category -- wins, win percentage, money earned. At Belmont in the fall of 2012, he was even better, winning 56 races, 17 more than runner-up Castellano.
Despite facing fierce competition throughout 2012, he set a single-season record with earnings of $25,582,252. He finished more than $3 million in front of runner-up Javier Castellano.
Napravnik and Leparoux have moved on, realizing that with Dominguez around there are only so many opportunities for other riders. He ran them out of town.
This year, no doubt, would have been more of the same. Dominguez is just 36, in the prime of his career and seemed well on his way to being the sport's best jockey for years to come.
That all changed January 18 at Aqueduct when he fractured his skull in a spill. Originally, it didn't look like the injury would keep his sidelined for more than a couple of months. He talked about coming back in March and was intent on riding in the Kentucky Derby. The days kept dragging on and he remained on the sidelines, but it always seemed that it was nothing more than a matter of time before he returned and before he retained his place at the very top of the jockey hierarchy.
"I don't know if you call it selfish or foolish, but I am definitely dying to know when I can come back and ride race horses," he said back in February. "Physically, I feel capable of running a marathon and, mentally, if I'm not that sharp, I don't think it is due to the injury. I feel pretty good and God willing I can come back to riding race horses in a short period of time."
Then came the announcement. "While I hoped and even expected to be able to return to the saddle, as a result of my injuries and upon the advice of my treating physicians, it has been determined that I will no longer be able to pursue my career as a jockey," Dominguez said in a statement.
The doctors had told him the harsh truth that another spill could mean serious and lasting damage. It was a risk he was not willing to take.
Plenty of athletes, jockeys among them, have come back after announcing that injuries had forced them to the sidelines forever. I hope Dominguez can resist the temptation. To walk away from something you love, something you're good at and something that puts a lot of money in your pocket has to be very difficult. But brain injuries are something you can't mess with, especially when you have a family that includes two small children.
Dominguez probably feels pretty unlucky right now. But he shouldn't. He's had a great career and he walked away from a terrible accident. There are more important things in life than being a jockey, like family and health. That goes for them all, even one of the best ever.