12/09/2005 12:00AM

This apprentice has what it takes

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Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Apprentice Emma Wilson leads the Woodbine standings with 169 wins.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Ballots for the Eclipse Awards were mailed this week to 324 lucky voters, all of them fully versed on the major players of the 2005 season and prepared to render fair and solemn judgements.

There are slam dunks (Pletcher, Velazquez, Lost in the Fog) and tangled webs of confusion (3-year-old filly, male turf horse), but at least the names are familiar and their qualifications apparent.

In the category for North America's leading apprentice of 2005, however, it may come as a surprise that the jockey in clear-cut command of all significant statistical tables is a) Canadian, b) a woman, and c) not a teenager.

Her name - and remember it - is Emma-Jayne Wilson.

Wilson, who turned 24 in September, is a college-educated daughter of a computer programmer and a corporate marketing executive who took the 2005 Woodbine meeting by the throat early and never let go. Through Thursday's racing, Wilson had won 169 races at the meet (with another five wins at Fort Erie) and will enter Sunday's closing-day program about 40 wins clear of Corey Fraser, who is in second place. In addition to her stellar chance for an Eclipse, Wilson is also heavily favored to win Canada's Sovereign Award as leading apprentice.

"It's all icing on the cake," Wilson said this week from her home near Woodbine. "But it's pretty amazing. When I was in college I read the fourth Harry Potter book in the series. I remember thinking, Why can't all these magical things happen to me? Then the movie version came out this year, and when I saw it the other day I realized that I'm actually living the dream that I had at that earlier point in my life."

Giving an apprentice an Eclipse Award can be risky. Many times it ends up a one-shot deal. Questions like "whatever happened to. . .?" abound, after the hard realities of a professional career take hold.

Neither does it make sense that all-star journeymen can go their entire careers without a sniff of an Eclipse - Jorge Velasquez and Eddie Delahoussaye come immediately to mind - while a whole roster of flash-in-the-pan, five-pound bugs get to dust off the precious statuette. Let it be noted that Steve Valdez, Ron Franklin, and Juan Umana have all won the same number of Eclipse Awards - one - as Gary Stevens, Jose Santos, and Sandy Hawley.

Thankfully, the Eclipse Award for apprentice also has been known to tip greatness. Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, and Kent Desormeaux went on to the Hall of Fame. Cash Asmussen, Jimmy Edwards, Richard Migliore, Mike Luzzi, and Rosemary Homeister are among several others who have enjoyed long and respected careers. Recent winners include Tyler Baze, Jeremy Rose, Ryan Fogelsonger, and Eddie Castro, all of them making the right kind of noise as journeymen.

If Emma-Jayne Wilson is to join their company, all she needs to do is build on her growing reputation in Canada. After that, the big rooms and bright lights of the U.S. will beckon, and she will get a chance to prove herself against the best that the game has to offer.

Don't bet against her. Hometown horsemen have praised her as a smart rider and a fearless competitor who goes where some family men fear to tread. Add to that a number of built-in advantages, and Wilson comes off the complete package.

As a natural lightweight, Wilson can scarf down smart calories without a glance at the scale. She is also natural athlete - rugby is her team sport of choice - as well as an accomplished horsewoman.

At the age of 9, when her parents bought her riding lessons, Wilson began to immerse herself in the technical aspects of equitation aboard a variety of breeds, from show-jumping to western style.

"One of the first things I heard when I came to the racetrack was, 'Oh, you ride show horses? Take everything you know and throw it out the window,' " Wilson said.

"That's not exactly true," she said. "I've always felt the more disciplines I know, the better horseman I'll be. You can use each and every one of those things you learn, even as a jockey, because no two horses are the same. When I was first galloping racehorses, I was really small. The asset of having the hands to finesse them and accept the bridle really helped."

At 24, Wilson is older and more mature than the average hot-shot apprentice, with a stability that stems from a nurturing family in which noteworthy accomplishment is the rule, rather than the exception. She has two older sisters, one of them studying law at Columbia and the other a teacher and mother of two.

"My parents taught us to keep all options open," Wilson said. "That's why I didn't go straight to the racetrack when I was 15. At college, I studied the business side of horses - marketing and management - along with some basic veterinary and care. By the time I came to the track, it wasn't to be a hotwalker or an exercise rider. It was to be a jockey."

Wilson gives a lot of credit for her success to her agent, Mike Luider, who has put his jock on nearly 1,100 races during the Woodbine meet. That's about 400 more than the next guy.

"Experience comes only with getting out there on the horse," Wilson said. "Fortunately, I don't reduce, which allows me to ride that many. And I like it. I have a pretty high energy level. During 'quiet time' in my class at grade school, Emma would have to go to another class."

Wilson has been able to channel that energy into mount earnings of $6.1 million (in U.S. dollars) so far in 2005, ahead of such Canadian stalwarts as Todd Kabel and Patrick Husbands.

"Mike and I talk a lot about peak performance and maintaining focus," she said. "Even journeymen jocks make the occasional mistakes. The key is to recognize a mistake when you've made it, then be a student of those mistakes and learn from them."

Wilson will spend the winter in Florida - smart girl - while exercising the Sam-Son Farm horses stabled at the Palm Meadows training center. In order to maintain her apprentice status into the 2006 Woodbine season, though, she will refrain from competing in the afternoons at Gulfstream Park. But there's always the beach, or Disney World, and at some point she might even need to make a trip to Los Angeles for an Eclipse Awards dinner that could end up as an Emma-Jayne Wilson coming-out party. Pretty heady stuff.

"I want to maintain who I am even with the success I've had," Wilson said. "And I listen. Veteran jocks tell me that if I look good on a horse, people will notice me, even if I'm not going that fast.

"But the best advice I've been given came from my mother, from my agent, and from the first trainer I worked for," she said. "It was to stay humble and stay wise."