07/13/2005 12:00AM

Apprentice jockeys lead the way

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Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Apprentice riders Emma Wilson (above) and Corey Fraser are one-two in the Woodbine standings. The last time an apprentice won the title was 1991.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - It may be the year of the rooster according to the Chinese zodiac, but it's the year of the "bug" here at Woodbine.

Heading into Wednesday night's races, with a touch more than one-third of the meeting in the books, apprentice riders Emma Wilson and Corey Fraser are running one-two. Wilson had won 54 races, Fraser 47.

The last apprentice jockey to win a riding title here was Mickey Walls, in 1991. Never have apprentices finished one-two, and never has a woman topped the Woodbine rider standings at year's end.

"It's been a while since we've had a couple of 'live' apprentices," said veteran rider Ray Sabourin. "The jockey colony here has been kind of quiet recently."

Sabourin, despite his magnanimity, acknowledges that the success of the apprentices has a downside for the journeymen riders here.

"It's not helping us, business-wise," said Sabourin. "They're eating up a lot of winners."

Not to mention a lot of mounts. Wilson, with 326 mounts, and Fraser, with 260, are tops in that category, too. Wilson can tack 106 pounds and Fraser 109, but it is more the five-pound allowance that is drawing horsemen to them.

Meanwhile, Wilson and Fraser acknowledge that they are spurred on by each other's success.

"The farther into the season it goes, the more fun we have with it," said Fraser. "We're kind of pushing each other. If we end up first and second either way, that's quite an accomplishment."

Fraser, 28, won last year's Sovereign Award as outstanding apprentice after riding 67 winners in his first full campaign, and his continuing success is not that surprising. He will lose his apprentice allowance Sept. 30.

Wilson, 23, rode four winners in her first 31 mounts last year before hanging up her tack.

Apprentices here maintain their five-pound allowance for one year from the date of their fifth win, and extensions are granted for riders who are inactive through Canada's off-season or lose time because of injury.

Since Wilson did not ride her fifth winner until April 24, and does not plan to compete this winter, she should retain the "bug" well into next summer.

Despite her relative lack of experience coming into this season, Wilson's agent, Mike Luider, was looking for a big year.

"She's got so many good attributes you look for in a rider, so there was some expectation there," said Luider. "But I'm a bit surprised at how early this came. I expected her to have a good fall, but the momentum came a lot quicker than I thought it would."

Wilson admits to being very competitive and goal-oriented.

"We sat down this spring and made out a big list of about 100 goals," she said. "The main thing right now is to ride as many horses as we can, and learn as much as we can.

"Being leading rider, or leading apprentice, is definitely something that we had written down; we aim as high as we can," she said. "But even being as competitive as I am, the main thing is to have fun and enjoy it."

Wilson was born in nearby Brampton, and a love affair with horses bloomed early. Taking up riding at age 9, and visiting Woodbine often with her parents, she long ago decided on her career path.

"Ever since grade school, when we had a career day, I said I want to be a jockey," she said.

After finishing high school, Wilson enrolled in a two-year equine program at Kemptville College at the nearby University of Guelph in 1999.

In the meantime, she had her first taste of exercising Thoroughbreds here in 2000, and it was bitter.

"I came in for three days, to gallop horses for Tino Attard," Wilson said. "I got run off with by about 10 horses, and I hurt my back.

"It was difficult, but it definitely planted a seed. I was going to do what I needed to do to get there properly, to be a jockey."

Returning to college, Wilson set aside her interest in rugby and baseball and even stopped riding while she got her back in order.

She had planned to spend a year working with yearlings at a breeding farm, which she did at Park Stud, and then another year at a training center before heading back to the racetrack. But she skipped phase two of that plan and in 2002 was galloping horses here for trainer C.C. Hopmans.

"C.C. helped me out, told me what I needed to do," Wilson said.

Wilson headed south that winter, working with trainer Roger Attfield at Payson Park in Florida. The following summer she joined forces with Luider.

"We started working together, in terms of studying races," said Wilson. "We kept in contact all winter."

Wilson put in her two years of exercising horses at Woodbine, spending the offseasons working with Sam-Son Farm and trainer Mark Frostad at Fair Grounds.

Then, last August, Wilson and Luider made their move.

"We felt it was a good time to start; things were progressing quite well," said Wilson. "We'd do the four-winner thing, then hang it up."

Wilson's first winner came with Ali Olah, her second career mount, at Fort Erie on Aug. 28 and her first winner at Woodbine came with her next mount, Tudy's Choice, on Sept. 3.

Red Johnson, who trains Tudy's Choice, had become aware of Wilson through his assistant and partner, Tina Wilcox, who showed him a tape of her Fort Erie win.

"I said, 'Where's he from? How many has he won?' " recalled Johnson, who was told that "he" was in fact a she.

"I met with her, liked her, and committed half the barn to her this year," said Johnson, who trains 19 horses.

"I knew she was a star immediately. I also predicted quite a while ago she'd be not only the leading 'bug,' but the leading rider this year. She is the most natural rider here. Horses run for her."

After winning her fourth race with No Pajamas here Sept. 26, Wilson took off her final mount on the card.

But it certainly didn't take long for her to rediscover that winning touch this spring.

After sitting out the first three cards of the meeting, serving a suspension carried over from last year, Wilson clicked with 3 of her 6 mounts in her return on April 24.

And while she hasn't looked back since then, Wilson does not take her success for granted.

She breezes about five horses per morning while making the rounds of clients and potential clients with Luider. On racing days, she's in the jockeys' room early, studying the past performances.

"I look at how races are going to set up," said Wilson. "And I usually ask myself one question - what am I going to do with this horse to get him to win?"

Wilson believes her experience with show horses is the key to her success. "When you're riding show horses, you have to have quiet hands," she said. "You communicate with your hands."

Plenty of Wilson's mounts obviously have been getting the message.

So have the fans, young and old and male and female alike, calling out her name and showering compliments after she won the fourth race here last Sunday with Kabul.

Still, Wilson keeps a level head on her shoulders. The main thing is doing what she has always wanted to do.

"People have asked me if I ever imagined in my wildest dreams I'd be leading rider," said Wilson. "I say to them 'You know what, in my wildest dreams, I was the leading rider.' So, I'm living my wildest dream."