06/25/2008 12:00AM

Bejarano out to be top gun

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Benoit & Associates
Rafael Bejarano, on Heatseeker after winning the Big Cap, will ride him in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The cell phone bill is huge and he does not care one bit. Being the leading rider at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park this year has given Rafael Bejarano financial freedom, if not peace of mind.

Every day, before the races begin or during his 90-minute commute home to Pasadena, Bejarano grabs his cell phone and calls south, way south, to his family in Arequipa, Peru. He cannot see his mother, Elva, his father, Hugo, or his two sisters - they have been unable to gain tourist visas - but he can still talk to them daily.

"When I win, I want to see my family - my mother and my father and my sisters," he said. "I call home every day. I don't care how much I have to pay every month. It makes me feel better."

The conversation is routine. "What are you doing today?" he'll ask. "What are you cooking? How is everybody?"

Bejarano, who is single, turned 26 on Monday. This Saturday evening, he could make a very joyous phone call to his family. He rides the heavy favorite, Heatseeker, in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park.

"Big Brown and Curlin are the only two in front of me," Bejarano said of Heatseeker's national ranking.

Heatseeker's rise to prominence this year has coincided with Bejarano's climb to the top of the always-tough Southern California jockey roster. Bejarano relocated from the Kentucky circuit last fall at the insistence of trainer Bobby Frankel, who committed to giving Bejarano the necessary opportunities to justify the move.

It was not long after he arrived that other trainers added their support. Bejarano quickly found himself in a battle with Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez for the lead in the jockey standings at Santa Anita.

"Bobby Frankel brought me here and gave me a lot of good opportunities," Bejarano said. "I was getting on more horses. The first three months was kind of hard. You had to work every day. When you are the new young guy, they want to ride you."

Even a back injury suffered in a spill in March, which kept Bejarano sidelined for three weeks, did not cost him in the standings. The time off did provide a chance to go home to Peru for 10 days, largely because his family cannot attain visas to visit him, a source of massive frustration.

"It's very tough," he said. "It makes me feel very sad."

With Gomez having left for Keeneland in early April, Bejarano, recovered from his injury, won the title at Santa Anita. He has been the leading rider throughout the Hollywood Park meeting. Entering Wednesday's races, he had 45 wins, eight in front of Joel Rosario.

"Right now, I'm trying to be the leading rider," he said.

Bejarano arrived in the United States from Peru in 2002, and won riding titles at five meetings in Kentucky in 2005, including the fall meeting at Keeneland. In 2006, he rode in Florida, Kentucky, and New York, often hopscotching through the East Coast to follow the circuit. Last year, he and his agent, Joe Ferrer, decided to leave Kentucky for a larger circuit. California was chosen over New York, even though they had stronger ties to Eastern horsemen.

The best horse Bejarano rides is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, a California mainstay. Bejarano has ridden Heatseeker in four races - a second-place finish in the San Antonio Handicap in February, a win in the Santa Anita Handicap, a second in the Oaklawn Handicap, and an emphatic victory, by 5 1/4 lengths, in the Californian on May 31.

The win in the Big Cap, when Heatseeker made up eight lengths in the final quarter-mile, clinched Bejarano's opinion of the 5-year-old.

"In that race he really showed me how good of a horse he was," he said. "He was amazing. He was flying."

In the Californian, against only three rivals, the usually late-running Heatseeker stunned Bejarano by taking him to an early lead.

"He's still getting better every time," Bejarano said. "I think he's going to be a super horse."

For Hollendorfer, the jockey and the trainer are a perfect fit.

"He seems to get a lot of run out of the horse," Hollendorfer said.

Signs point to a big race by Heatseeker on Saturday. He worked five furlongs in 57.80 seconds under Bejarano on Sunday, has a win over the track at the meeting, and thrives at the 1 1/4 miles of the Gold Cup.

If he wins, it will be a source of pride for Bejarano, and further proof that he made the right choice in moving to Southern California. Later that day, a phone will ring in South America, a son calling a family with a story to tell.