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Fairplex Meet Can Give Fogelsonger a Big Boost

September 12, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Over the years, winning races in big numbers at Fairplex Park has shifted the careers of David Flores, Jose Valdivia Jr. and Victor Espinoza into higher gears, and Ryan Fogelsonger is looking for a similar impetus when the 65th Los Angeles County Fair meet opens today in Pomona.

Fogelsonger, 22, has conquered Maryland, and all of the apprentice jockeys who rode last year, and now he has arrived in Southern California, where a riding colony in flux will still be a tall mountain to climb. Fogelsonger, writing a perfect script, won a race at Del Mar on Saturday, with the first horse he rode in California, then rode several more horses -- winning with one more -- through the end of that season Wednesday.

The county fair, run during a time when most of the top jockeys are either on vacation or have stakes engagements back East, is not a litmus test for any rider, but the 17 days of Fairplex afford Fogelsonger an opportunity to introduce himself to some of the trainers he'll need for support when major racing returns at Santa Anita on Sept. 28.

This is a unique Fairplex meet in that its closing day, Sept. 28, overlaps with the opening of Santa Anita, where Fogelsonger also plans to ride. The Oak Tree Racing Assn., which runs the upcoming meet at Santa Anita, obtained permission from the California Horse Racing Board for the unprecedented scheduling in order to run four key prep races for the Breeders' Cup, which comes to Santa Anita on Oct. 25. Oak Tree will indemnify Fairplex for business losses on the overlapping day.

Of the 12 races today, Fogelsonger will have five mounts. He rode in eight races on closing day at Del Mar, a good sign for his agent, Michelle Barsotti, who's responsible for lining up business for her new client. Barsotti, who has previously worked for California riders Brice Blanc and Garrett Gomez, and Fogelsonger didn't hook up until they met at the Hollywood premiere of "Seabiscuit" in July.

Although Fogelsonger has been riding only since March 2002 -- he was beaten by more than 30 lengths with his first mount -- he won 267 races last year, when he was voted the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice. The end of his apprenticeship, sometimes a stumbling block because journeymen riders no longer get a break in the weights their horses must carry, hasn't seemed to matter. Fogelsonger has won 79 races since losing his so-called "bug" in May. His 231 wins this year rank him fourth nationally. His horses have earned more than $4 million in 2003.

Any newcomer who can click in Southern California will be at the forefront of a new era -- one without Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye and Laffit Pincay in the saddle. Those three Hall of Fame jockeys, who have retired in the last 15 months, won 23,055 races. McCarron, as Fogelsonger hopes to do, emerged from Maryland after winning an apprentice Eclipse in 1974 to establish a beachhead in California.

"[Those retirements] had something to do with my coming to California," Fogelsonger said. "Those three guys weren't just big riders, they were the elite of the game. But this is still a very strong colony. It might be a tad bit easier without the three big guys around, but only a tad."

After on-the-job training with Franklin Smith at a farm in Elloree, S.C., and with the Boniface family at their spread in Darlington, Md., Fogelsonger broke in inauspiciously. The Pimlico stewards, concerned that his greenness might jeopardize the safety of other jockeys, considered suspending his license, but Fogelsonger's agent then, Kevin Witte, was able to buy some time for his rider. A few weeks later, on May 1, 2002, Fogelsonger won his first race, and later that summer, at Colonial Downs near Richmond, Va., he won 27 races, finishing third in the overall meet standings.

Several of those winners were for trainer Dale Capuano. "I don't remember anyone since Kent Desormeaux [in 1987] coming [to the Maryland circuit] and winning so quickly," Capuano said. "There's no reason why Ryan can't be a top rider for a long time."

At 5 feet 3 and 108 pounds, Fogelsonger would appear to have no immediate weight problems. Jockey Mario Pino, a Maryland kingpin, is enthusiastic about Fogelsonger's future.

"Horses run for Ryan, and he doesn't get nervous if he gets shut off," Pino said. "He's a safe rider. When he first started, you were a little leery riding next to him. But he learned fast. He understands pace, and that's rare with [young] riders. It usually takes a couple of years to figure that out, but he's done it already."

Fairplex might be a new venue for Fogelsonger, but he's already experienced at riding the type of tight turns the five-furlong Pomona track offers.

"I've ridden on some bullrings back home," Fogelsonger said. "Timonium, Charles Town, places like that. So I don't see that there will be much adjustment needed."

Charles Town is a six-furlong layout in West Virginia, and Timonium, in suburban Baltimore, runs an abbreviated fair meet not unlike Fairplex Park's. At Timonium last year, Fogelsonger won 22 races in eight days, 14 more than the next rider in the standings.

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Business was up in all categories for the 43-day Del Mar meet that ended Wednesday. On-track attendance, which increased by almost 9% over last year, averaged 16,882 a day. Overall betting, showing a $13.2-million daily average, increased 7.5%. On-track betting was up 4.2%. Internet and phone betting averaged almost $946,000 a day, a boost of 50%. Del Mar's daily average on-track attendance was the highest since intertrack betting was introduced in 1988.

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