05/27/2001 11:00PM

Bugboy Velazquez in like Flynn


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - While the races for the leading jockey and trainer at Hastings Park will be hotly contested all year, it looks like a walkover for the leading apprentice rider as Mario Velazquez is the only bugboy currently riding at the Vancouver ova.l.

Velazquez, who is 20, was born in Mexico City, but his father is Canadian and moved the Velazquez family to Langley, B.C., in 1991. He got his first introduction to racehorses at Dr. Bryan Anderson's Wild Rose Farm three years ago. He worked as a farmhand for about a year and then was introduced to trainer Richard Cloutier, who was at the farm breaking yearlings.

"He told me he wanted to be a jockey and since he was eager and had a good work ethic I decided to try and teach him how to ride," said Cloutier, who gallops his own horses. "He had never even been on a horse at the time but he's a fast learner and it didn't take long to get him going."

Cloutier didn't think that Velazquez was ready to start as a full-time rider last year but wanted him to ride at least one race to have something to think about over the winter. "I put [Velazquez] up on one of my horses and then a couple of other trainers gave him mounts, so he got a good feel for race riding and it looks like he's on his way now."

"Richard's been a great help," said Velazquez. "He videotaped me when I was working horses in the mornings and told me what I was doing wrong, and basically he hassles me all the time. Harold Barroby has also been helpful and he's put me on some very live horses."

Velazquez won his sixth race aboard Port Alice last Saturday and is gaining confidence with each mount. "I've learned a lot since the beginning of the year and I'm starting to feel a lot more comfortable out there," he said.

Last year Jeff Burningham was the leading apprentice at Hastings and then moved his tack to Woodbine after the meet ended. He is currently the leading apprentice at Woodbine and leads all apprentices in money won in Canada. Velazquez plans to follow in his footsteps.

"I'll ride here until the fall," said Velazquez, "but after seeing the success that Jeff's had out there, I think it's worth a try. And by then I'll have had plenty of experience."

With the large purses offered at Woodbine it's getting increasingly difficult to keep young riders in the jocks room at Hastings Park. It is also discouraging possible mentors from taking on potential riders. Frank Barroby spent a lot of time bringing Burningham along only to see him leave for greener pastures.

"I can't blame him for going," said Barroby. "And I am very proud to see him doing so well. But it's a lot of work bringing along a green apprentice. You need owners that will let them ride their horses, because you know that they are going to make mistakes while they are learning."

Avelino Gomez Memorial Award winner Chris Loseth echoes Barroby's sentiments. "Right now I have a couple of riders that I'm helping get started out at Canmor Farms," said Loseth. "But I won't be teaching any more after that. Why should I? There's no loyalty any more and I'm wondering just how smart I really am. Here I am nearing the end of my career, so what am I doing training people that are going to take away my job?"

Of course, one of the reasons Loseth was honored with the Gomez Award was his contribution to the sport and the odds are good that he will continue to help young riders along.

Jockey agent Wayne Snow is currently in the process of bringing Elvis Trujillo up from Panama to ride. "He's only 17 and they were trying to get him to ride in Southern California but he's not old enough to get a work permit in the U.S. without his parents coming along with him," said Snow. "They don't have that restriction in Canada and hopefully we'll have him up here soon"