07/31/2008 11:00PM

Apprentices get on the board


BOSSIER CITY, La. - It is always a special occasion when a young apprentice jockey boots home his first winner. When it happens twice on the same day, well, that practically qualifies for a state holiday given Louisiana's rich heritage in producing successful riders.

Dustin Dugas, 16, and Brandon Smith, 18, picked up their initial wins last Saturday in what each hopes is the start of something big. Dugas broke through first, in the third race on Frenchie's Dream for trainer Gilbert Ciavaglia, and Smith followed in the sixth with Saving Stardust for Dean Waters. Both won again on Sunday.

Dugas and Smith hope to continue a recent trend of top apprentice jockeys emerging at Louisiana Downs. Lyndie Wade won 25 races locally last year before moving his tack to Chicago and making quite an impression, and in July 2006, Joe Talamo won his first career race over this oval en route to his phenomenal rise to stardom, which included an Eclipse Award for being the nation's top apprentice in 2007.

The comparison to Talamo comes especially easy for Dugas. Not only did both begin their careers at the same age and have the same agent, Tony Martin, they are also second cousins and grew up about half a mile apart just outside New Orleans.

"We still keep in touch," said Dugas on Thursday morning. "He is out in California now, but he really has not changed that much with the amount of his success and all. He was one who put me in touch with Tony."

Unlike Talamo, who got his start in racing in a conventional manner since his father worked as a part-time groom, Dugas began his association with horses through barrel racing.

"I was racing barrels at a young age, and a lady chiropractor who was also into the sport suggested I try race riding," says Dugas. "I started going back and forth to the training center across the lake at Folsom and my riding developed from there."

When asked about his weight, Dugas said, "I'm tacking about 110 pounds right now, so it has not been an issue at all.

"I don't even know where the hot box is," he said, in reference to the most common method of weight reduction used by riders.

Dugas said that his short-term plans are to finish the meeting here, then follow the route of his cousin and test the waters at Fair Grounds this winter.

Smith, a native of St. Martinville in the heart of Cajun country, began his career at an early age. He is the son of trainer Hallet Smith and the younger brother of fellow jockey Kevin Smith. Both his father and brother are currently based at Evangeline Downs near Lafayette, La.

"I started galloping horses when I was 12," said the soft-spoken Smith. "I got on a lot of horses before riding my first race last winter at Delta."

Smith began the spring and summer meeting at Evangeline in April but moved farther away from home because he was "not doing any good."

He is represented by Jeff Burningham, himself a top 10 rider locally in recent years before he was sidelined by injury this year. The two hope to build some momentum here this summer before returning to Delta in the fall.