08/07/2003 12:00AM

Bejarano riding out of poverty


HENDERSON, Ky. - When Jon Court's reign at Ellis Park began in 1998, the man who would one day threaten to halt Court's record string of riding titles was merely trying to get enough to eat.

Rafael Bejarano, who held the lead over Court atop the jockey standings as the Ellis meet passed its midway point Wednesday, grew up in the impoverished village of Arequipa, Peru, where his entire family lived in a small room of a small house.

"My dad, mom, two sisters, and me," Bejarano, 21, said Thursday through interpreter Ramiro Torres. "Very, very poor."

In much the same way that riding racehorses has been a godsend for fellow Peruvians Edgar Prado, Jorge Chavez, Manuel Aguilar, and Julio Pezua, Bejarano is deeply grateful that his career has allowed his family to escape the dreadful conditions in which they were mired for so long. Bejarano is mailing a sizable chunk of his paychecks to his family back home, where a house is under construction.

"That has always been my dream, to have a home for my family," he said.

Through 21 of 41 days, Bejarano led Court by a 34-22 count atop the jockey standings. Court, whose five straight riding crowns are the most in the 80-year history of Ellis, said he will have a hard time making it six in a row. Bejarano is the obvious reason.

"He's doing real well," Court said. "He's a super-nice kid who gets a lot of run out of his horses. He came into this meet with a lot of momentum and has really capitalized on it."

Bejarano, who attended the same Lima, Peru, riding school as Prado, came to the United States on the advice of Dante Zanelli Sr., whose son, Dante Zanelli Jr., moved his stable from south Florida to Ohio last year. Bejarano quickly caught on at River Downs last summer, then several months later moved to Turfway Park, where veteran agent Steve Elzey took his book. Bejarano has risen steadily in the ranks and now finds himself on the verge of his first riding title.

"I feel I've always worked hard, but now I think I'm working harder than ever," he said. "I'm trying to do the best I can."

Bejarano could hit a career high on Saturday when he rides Desert Gold, one of the main contenders in the annual Ellis showcase, the Gardenia Handicap. Pat Byrne, trainer of Desert Gold, said he was happy to get Bejarano to ride his filly.

"He's hot right now, and that counts for a lot," Byrne said. "I think the kid rides really well - smart and aggressive."

Desert Gold relaxed, ready

Desert Gold, a 4-year-old Seeking the Gold filly, hasn't exactly turned out the way Byrne thought she would. After the filly won her career debut at Churchill Downs in May 2002, Byrne immediately started looking toward the Test Stakes at Saratoga.

"Initially, we thought she could be a top sprinter," Byrne said. "But as she's matured, she's shown us she wants more ground."

A winner in 6 of 10 lifetime starts for Stonerside Stable, Desert Gold won a June 28 overnight stakes at Arlington Park in her latest start. That race was run at the same 1 1/8-mile distance as the Gardenia.

"She's really learned to relax," said Byrne. "She's come along real nice. This type of race Saturday could be right up her alley."

Take Charge Lady to Arlington?

Several weeks ago, trainer Ken McPeek said he was pointing his star filly, Take Charge Lady, to the Gardenia. But last week McPeek said the timing of the race was not ideal, so he told Ellis officials to count him out.

McPeek said Thursday from Saratoga that Take Charge Lady likely will run next in the Sept. 1 Arlington Matron. "It's good timing in relation to the Spinster," a Grade 1 race to be run Oct. 5 at Keeneland, he said. "We really want to repeat in the Spinster, and the Matron looks like it should set us up nice for that."

Take Charge Lady, owned by the Select Stable, has been first or second in 16 of 18 lifetime starts and has earned more than $2 million. She won the 2002 Spinster by 2 1/2 lengths and would become the first to repeat in the Keeneland showcase since Bayakoa won in 1989-90.

Take Charge Lady breezed Sunday at Saratoga and is scheduled for another work on Sunday or Monday, McPeek said.

Simulcast business booming

Doug Bredar, in his second year as the Ellis racing secretary, said he couldn't be more pleased with how the first half of the meet has gone. With 21 days complete, offtrack handle on Ellis racing averaged $2,536,399, an increase of 23.5 percent over corresponding dates in 2002.

Bredar is a huge believer in large fields driving handle, so he is always cognizant of maintaining field size so that simulcast bettors will be drawn to Ellis. Bredar said he has been astounded by some recent business results, most notably Aug. 1, when Ellis handled a track-record $4.8 million from all sources.

"Arlington Park handled less than $4.1 million that day," said Bredar. "For horseplayers to embrace our signal like that is extremely gratifying."

Meanwhile, ontrack business has been disappointing at Ellis, even with unseasonably mild weather. Average ontrack handle is $215,388, down 7 percent.

Paul Kuerzi, general manager at Ellis, said that despite the substantial increase in all-sources business, he does not expect a purse increase. "We fell short in the off-season, so we needed to make up the difference to meet our original projections," Kuerzi said.

Times have changed

With the era of simulcasting having dramatically altered the dynamics of ontrack patronage, the days of huge crowds turning out for a race such as the Gardenia are long gone.

"I remember when my dad won this race, which was then known as the Coca-Cola Classic," said Jason English, a local club owner whose father, Ken, co-owned Crimson Orchid, the 1985 winner.

"There were cars lined up out every gate," said English, gazing wistfully out of a press-box window. "The place was jammed. It's kind of sad, but I don't know if we'll ever see that here again."

Ellis officials are expecting about 5,000 fans here Saturday.

* Churchill Downs Inc., the Ellis Park parent that has put the track up for sale, has instructed management to cut costs wherever possible. One of the changes from prior years is the elimination of hot food from the weekday buffet in the clubhouse. Weekday customers who pay $8.25 for the buffet are now served salad, soup, cold cuts, and other less appealing items. A full-service buffet is available for $9.95 on weekends.