06/16/2004 12:00AM

Apprentices making their marks


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - There are racing circuits, like Maryland, that always seem to have at least one hot apprentice jockey. Not Chicago, which has a stable - some would say cemented - jockey colony for much of the year, and in Rene Douglas, a perennial kingpin during the summer.

But at the moment there are five apprentice riders plying their trade at Arlington. Miguel Mena is out on the fringes. Liz Morris is hanging on, but struggling for business. The three others, Cruz Contreras, James Graham, and Timothy Thornton have had an impact on the Chicago circuit. Through Sunday, Contreras was tied with Douglas atop the Arlington standings with 23 victories.

Graham, spending his first meet in Chicago, was tied for fifth with 13.

Thornton still is nursing a wrist injury that cost him the first few weeks of the meet, but he has six wins from 39 starters.

What further binds this trio is this: All have nearly reached a career crossroads. Contreras, 23, loses his apprentice allowance June 27. The 24-year-old Graham becomes a journeyman on Aug. 3. Thornton, just 18, joins him a day later.

At 51, Ray Sibille is old enough to be the father of all three.

"I think all of them can ride," Sibille said. "You never know who's going to make it, though. It's like baseball with the sophomore jinx. It's about who can handle it mentally. All of a sudden, people who were your friends aren't your friends any more."

Contreras and agent Tom Morgan appear to have laid the groundwork for a smooth transition later this month. Contreras, who has become increasingly polished the last year, has attached himself to a wide range of local stables.

Morgan said, "Part of the thing that will help him is he's one of the natural lightweights up here."

Since Thornton still is going to high school, it is hard to see this as a make-or-break summer. Enhancing his prospects for the move to journeyman status are connections with large-scale stables like those of Pat Cuccurullo and Frank Kirby.

The ebullient Graham is treating the end of his weight allowance with typical verve. "I don't know what effect it will have," he said. "It's still so far out. I know I'll be riding like I always have - full of confidence."

Tote board being repaired

Arlington's tote board remained dark on Wednesday, four days after it was badly damaged in an electrical fire. But Cliff Goodrich, president of Arlington, said the board was under repair, and could be functioning again in a couple of weeks.

The electronic eyes used to time races are linked to the tote board circuitry damaged in the fire, and the eyes weren't functioning during Sunday's races. But the electronic timing system was back running on Wednesday, with parimutuel information continuing to be displayed on a giant monitor next to the tote board.

There has been talk of Arlington completely replacing the tote board after this season, but Goodrich said nothing had been decided in that regard. "I'm trying to see myself what we'll do long-term," he said.

Five enter Chicago BC Handicap

A field of just five horses was entered Wednesday for Saturday's Grade 3 Chicago Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Mayo on the Side, who ships here from Churchill Downs for trainer Carl Nafzger, should be an overwhelming favorite in the seven-furlong race, with Smoke Chaser the likely second choice. In her last start, Mayo on the Side beat Azeri in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff.

Art Variety to stay at Arlington

Art Variety, the winner of an overnight handicap here Sunday at 1 1/2 miles on turf, will remain stabled at Arlington and make his next start July 4 in the Stars and Stripes Handicap.

Art Variety, who shipped in from Churchill Downs, will be joined in the race by his more highly regarded stablemate, Hard Buck, who finished second last weekend in the $100,000 Opening Verse at Churchill.

Sunday's race was contested on wet turf, and McPeek said Art Variety "normally hates soft ground. He really ran good over it," McPeek said.

* A high-end allowance race that would have included Apt to Be, second in the Grade 3 Hanshin Handicap in his last start, drew insufficient entries to be included on Friday's card. There is no discernible feature to take its place, either. The highest-level races on the card are a pair of Illinois-bred entry-level allowance races and an open $50,000 claimer for fillies and mares.