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DEL MAR : Atkinson Returns to Riding After Recovery From Injury


DEL MAR — Paul Atkinson crooked his head, twisted his neck and stretched first one arm and then another over his head. He pulled himself aboard Big Girl Now, a 50-1 shot in a claiming race for maiden fillies at Del Mar on Friday.

Big Girl Now was Atkinson's first mount since he suffered a broken right collarbone in a motorcycle accident near Gorman on June 21. He sat out the last five weeks of the Hollywood Park meeting.

"I was getting pretty bored sitting around," Atkinson said Friday. "I needed to get a couple of races behind me to get my legs under me before the big race Saturday."

Atkinson was given mounts in stakes races his first two days back. He had We Say Do, a longshot who finished ninth in Friday's $75,000 California Thoroughbred Breeders Assn. Stakes and will ride Memo, the Chilean-bred morning-line favorite, in today's $125,000 San Diego Handicap, a steppingstone to the Pacific Classic on Aug. 21.

"I wanted to be good and strong for Memo," Atkinson said. "He's a gem of a horse."

The San Diego Handicap will be nearly a rematch of the Californian at Hollywood Park. Latin American won that race under Gary Stevens, followed by Missionary Ridge with Kent Desormeaux, Memo with Atkinson and Sir Beaufort with Patrick Valenzuela. The same cast is assembled here.

Atkinson barely made it back in time.

"When my shoulder first started healing up," he said, "I couldn't even dress myself. Even when it started feeling better, I couldn't get out and do things. I couldn't water ski or even play in the ocean, because the waves hurt when they hit my shoulder. I definitely couldn't ride a motorcycle."

Or a horse.

Atkinson, 24, grew up on a ranch in Idaho. He was breaking broncos and branding calves when most youngsters are occupied with baseball and football.

"I had to work," he said. "I didn't have time for those other things."

Atkinson ultimately decided it might be more fun to stay on horses rather than getting tossed from them. He rode his first race when he was 15. He had no gear, so he wore his cowboy boots and jeans and put what passed for silks over his shirt. He won.

"It was such a rush," he said. "Such a high. It certainly intensified my interest."

Atkinson's first "recognized" track was Wyoming Downs, across the state line from Salt Lake City. He won his first race there, too.

After graduating to the California state fair circuit, he rode during Santa Anita's 1991 Oak Tree meeting. His first mount was on a maiden named Arp; he won. Arp would go on to become a stakes winner, but not with Atkinson.

"I was a nobody from nowhere," he said. "I understood."

Big Girl Now did not sustain Atkinson's run of first-time-out fortune, finishing seventh in a field of 11.

Horse Racing Notes

Friday's best field was probably in the $55,000-added seventh race for fillies and mares rather than the featured eighth race. Magical Maiden, third in the Breeder's Cup Distaff but laid up since a Jan. 10 injury, came from behind under Gary Stevens to defeat Knight Prospector and Bountiful Native in a photo finish. Perhaps deterred by her layoff, bettors let her get away with a $15.60 payoff.

In the featured $75,000 CTBA Stakes for two-year-old fillies, Dezibelle's Star was a $34.80 upset winner with jockey G.L. Almeida. Ballerina Girl returned $23.40 to place and Paint Scraper paid $8.20 to show.

Missionary Ridge, winner of the 1992 Pacific Classic, is 3-1 on the morning line for the San Diego Handicap. He has won only once in seven starts since last summer's classic, a wire-to-wire victory under jockey Kent Desormeaux in the C.F. Burke Handicap at Santa Anita in November.

Ruth Dempsey Pyle, 77, whose family has been running a fans' tour from Los Angeles to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., since 1946, died Wednesday in Santa Monica. Her daughter, Jane Dempsey, has been conducting the tour since 1973. The family requests that contributions be made to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs.

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