05/29/2008 11:00PM

Apprentice gets off to strong start

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Apprentice jockey Jayson Rodriguez couldn't have gotten off to a better start at Hastings. Rodriguez seemed to appear out of nowhere - actually it was Panama - and he arrived at Hastings with little or no fanfare two weeks ago.

When trainer Caesar De Marni couldn't find anyone that wanted to ride 31-1 shot Steel's Lad on May 17, he gave Rodriguez the call. Breaking sharply, Steel's Lad led every step of the way and rewarded his backers with a $65.20 mutuel. So far, Rodriguez has won 2 races from his first 10 mounts and he appears to have a bright future here.

Rodriguez, 19, doesn't speak English. Jockey Felipe Valdez served as an interpreter for an interview.

Rodriguez grew up in Panama City and began his riding career at the Hipodromo Presidente Remon there. He won four races before he went down in a spill last year, so it had been a while since he actually rode in a race.

"I broke my ankle and also I banged up my knee pretty good," Rodriguez said. "Everything seems to be fine now and it's nice to be back riding. I was pretty tired after my first mount, but I'm starting to get in a lot better shape now."

According to Rodriguez, in order to become a jockey in Panama you have to enroll in the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School. Rodriguez spent two years there learning his trade. Notable graduates who have ridden in North America include Cornelio Velasquez, Alex Solis, and Gabriel Saez.

"They teach you everything you need to know about riding," Rodriguez said. "We had about 20 riders in the school when I was there. You are really well schooled when you graduate from the school."

Rodriguez's older sister is also a graduate, and she is currently riding in Panama. She had a big influence on his decision to become a rider.

"My sister Yadilka has won about 30 races," he said. "She encouraged me to ride and she was very helpful getting me started."

Rodriguez figures to get a few live mounts out of the powerful Tracy McCarthy barn - and some useful advice as well. McCarthy is married to Chris Loseth, the all-time leading rider at Hastings. Loseth's nephew James Loseth is Rodriguez's agent. In his first mount for McCarthy, Rodriguez finished second on Mazel Star in a maiden special weight race for 3-year-old fillies last Sunday.

"I don't know what I can teach him," Chris Loseth said. "The main thing is that horses run for him, so he is going to be riding live horses. That was how I learned. If you are riding dead horses, there really isn't a lot you can learn out there. But, from what I've seen so far, he's going to be getting some pretty live mounts."

Rodriguez is currently enrolled in the Hastings learning center, which is located on the backstretch. He hopes to learn to speak English as soon as possible. His response when asked how things are going for him in his new surroundings - "Muy bien."

Arkhill looks to prove himself

Trainer Craig MacPherson is looking for a good effort from Arkhill in a $50,000 optional claiming race that goes as the ninth race at Hastings on Sunday.

MacPherson said Arkhill has been a pleasant surprise. An Alberta-bred gelding by Orchid's Devil, Arkhill won all three of his starts as a 2-year-old in 2007. In his first start this year, he finished second to Ballintony in a no-conditions allowance race at Stampede Park in Calgary.

"He has done a lot better than we originally anticipated he would do," MacPherson said. "He still has to prove himself against tougher competition, but we really can't complain with how well he has done so far."

MacPherson was hoping to bring Arkhill back for the Presidents Handicap at Stampede Park on May 3, but he had to pass the race when Arkhill came down with a high temperature.

"He's an Alberta-bred, so the race would have been worth $90,000 to him," MacPherson said. "We were very disappointed to have to miss the race. The horse that beat us" - Ballintony - "came back to win the race, and I don't think our horse handled the off going very well. I think he would have had a big shot in the Presidents. We are kind of regrouping now."

According to MacPherson, Arkhill isn't much to look at.

"He's a small, unassuming-looking horse," MacPherson said. "But so far, he's got the job done in most cases. I don't know how he will do when he stretches out, but he acts like it shouldn't be a problem."

One thing going for Arkhill is his ability to rate. Sunday's race figures to have a lively and contested pace. Arkhill should get a nice trip from a stalking position. From the looks of his bullet five-furlong work in 59.40 seconds May 25, he is coming into the race as a very sharp horse.

"He seems to be going well now," MacPherson said. "He certainly looks good, and I expect him to run his race."