12/29/2006 12:00AM

Back from slow-healing injury, rider Ouzts still has it


When jockey Perry Ouzts returned to riding for the first time Tuesday following a riding accident that left him sidelined for 11 months, his mount, Divine Dancer, fell just short of completing a perfect comeback story - finishing second under him in the second race at Turfway Park.

But for the 52-year-old Ouzts, who sustained a compound fracture of his right forearm and fractures to five vertebrae in a spill at Turfway in late January, he still felt like a winner.

"I still got it!" he told observers after Divine Dancer closed to within a length of victorious Treat.

Ouzts has had it for long time. He grew up in Rivervale, Ark., riding horses with his cousin, Hall of Famer Earlie Fires. Since beginning his riding career in 1973, he has won 4,902 races, winning 11 meet jockey titles at Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio, and a record 18 titles at River Downs in Cincinnati. Prior to the injury last winter, he concluded 2005 with top 10 finishes in each of Turfway's three meets and was ranked 35th nationally by number of wins.

He is seeking to reach a milestone of having ridden 5,000 winners, a mark attained by just 20 riders since modern records have been kept, according to Equibase.

"That's the biggest reason I came back," Ouzts said shortly before the races began on Friday. "I've come way too close to stop now."

Although he said his injuries healed slower than he hoped, he feels good, physically and mentally. "I thought I'd be nervous and rusty coming back," he said. "But it was like I never left."

Heading into Friday's card, he had two seconds from nine mounts since returning on Tuesday.

Winning is only a matter of time, he said, adding, "All I need is a fast horse."

Ouzts said he is aiming to reach 5,000 winners by this summer at River Downs if all goes well, or maybe at Turfway Park later in the year. As for retirement, that is on hold. Riding winners is too much of a thrill.

"You can't put it into words, what it feels like to win," he said.

Mena way ahead in rider standings

With Turfway's holiday meet wrapping up Sunday, Miguel Mena appears on his way to the riding title, leading Alonso Quinonez by a 38 to 27 margin in wins, through Thursday. The record for winners during a holiday meet is 46, set by Rafael Bejarano in 2003.

With three days of racing left in the holiday meet before the winter-spring meet begins Jan. 1, Greg Foley leads Speedy Smithwick by a 7-5 margin in the trainer standings. Five others are tied for third with four wins apiece.

Pete the Poet vs. What a Character

A day before becoming 3, eight 2-year-olds will run in Sunday's featured ninth race at Turfway, a $21,200 entry-level allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Although untested on Polytrack, Pete the Poet appears in position to win. Trained by Eric Reed, he has a win and two thirds in four starts, his only off-the-board finish coming in a Keeneland allowance race on turf.

Most recently, he finished third at Churchill Downs Nov. 16, earning a 73 Beyer Speed Figure. Victor Lebron rides Pete the Poet, a son of Exploit owned by Audrey Narducci and Frank St. Charles.

What a Character looks like his primary foe. He finished seventh at Churchill in his last start Nov. 2, and ran third over Polytrack at Keeneland, earning a 79 Beyer, the top number of any horse in the field. Mena will ride.