12/09/2005 1:00AM

Canada's 2005 battle of the bugs

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Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Apprentice jockeys Corey Fraser (above) and Justin Stein helped make Canada a hot spot for bug riders all year long. In fact, four different Canadian apprentices have won enough races and/or money in 2005 to qualify for postseason awards in most years.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Canada produced a bumper crop of bug riders this year, with apprentices Emma Wilson, Justin Stein, Corey Fraser, and Chad Beckon all compiling statistics impressive enough to win a Sovereign Award in many seasons.

Only three could make the short list, however, and it really was no surprise when The Jockey Club of Canada announced Thursday that Wilson, Fraser, and Stein would be the finalists for this year's outstanding apprentice rider award.

Wilson, 24, has had spectacular success in her first full season in the saddle. With 174 wins and $7.2 million ($6.1 million U.S.) in purses heading into the final three days of the Woodbine meeting, Wilson not only will be the leading apprentice, but also the leading rider in both categories. She has won two stakes, including the Grade 2 Canadian Handicap.

Fraser, 28, won the Sovereign Award as outstanding apprentice last year and lost his bug Sept. 30. He will finish second in races won at the meeting, with 133 through Thursday.

Stein, 25, was the runaway leading rider at Hastings this year with 148 victories; runner-up Pedro Alvarado had 104. Stein won seven stakes, including two Grade 3's. Stein also eclipsed the Hastings apprentice record of 123 winners set by another Wilson, Dave, in 1994.

Chad Beckon, 25, is the odd man out in the Sovereign Award picture, despite being the leading rider at Fort Erie with 100 winners.

But if one bug has been squarely in the headlights since the early days of the Woodbine meeting, it is Emma Wilson.

After hanging up her tack after her fourth victory last fall in order to maximize her apprentice allowance, she began piling up victories early this year under the guidance of her agent, Mike Luider. A testament to Wilson's popularity is the fact that she had ridden in 1,067 races here through Thursday. Fraser, with 733 mounts, was next in number of rides.

Wilson is probably an odds-on choice for the Sovereign Award, but the accolades may not end there. She will end 2005 as the leading apprentice in North America in both in races and money won, so an Eclipse Award is a possibility.

"You shoot as high as you can," she said. "People have told me I'm quite high up there in the standings, but when it came down to it, I wanted to try not to worry too much about the numbers."

Stein, with 163 winners from 716 mounts through Thursday, will finish second among North American apprentices in races won and fourth in money won, with almost $2.5 million U.S. He won only one race from four mounts in a brief visit to Woodbine in August, returned near the end of the Hastings meeting, and has been picking up steam. Since then, he has 10 winners, including eight over the last seven cards.

Fraser rode 115 winners before becoming a journeyman, and is sixth among all apprentices in North America and second in money won with $3.9 million U.S. Beckon, who lost his bug on Oct. 20, is ninth with 102 wins as an apprentice, including eight at Woodbine.

Wilson rides at 106 pounds, Stein at 107, and Fraser at 111. That the three of them have ridden strictly in Canada should not damage their Eclipse Award chances. Canadian apprentices have done well in the voting on both sides of the border in the past. Channing Hill, their only serious contender south of the border, won 127 races and $4.7 million through Thursday.

Neil Poznansky took down both the Sovereign and Eclipse awards in 1996. Mickey Walls, winner of back-to-back apprentice jockey Sovereign Awards in 1990 and 1991, won the Eclipse Award in 1991.

Walls rode 231 winners before losing his bug in 1991 and 54 winners thereafter, becoming the first and only jockey to win Sovereign Awards as both outstanding apprentice and outstanding jockey in the same year. With or without his journeyman victories, Walls was far and away the leading rider in Canada that year.

Wilson, however, will be the first rider to lead the Canadian jockey standings in an all-apprentice season since Robert King in 1983. King rode 163 winners that year, his first of back-to-back Sovereign Award-winning campaigns.

The incomparable Sandy Hawley is the only other jockey to lead the Canadian standings in a full campaign as an apprentice. Hawley's mark of 230 winners in 1969 was the best among North American apprentices that year, in an era that preceded both Sovereign and Eclipse voting.

The comparisons are heady stuff for Wilson, who realized a childhood dream by becoming a jockey after attending an equine program at an Ontario college. She worked at a farm and at a training center before coming to the racetrack for good in 2002.

"It's all pretty surreal," she said.

Wilson, Stein, and Fraser will be far apart in terms of geography this winter but should be renewing acquaintances at Woodbine next April. Wilson plans to take a couple of weeks off and then head down to Palm Meadows, Fla., where she will gallop horses for Sam-Son Farm.

"I'll stay fit, have a bit of a holiday, and stay with the horses," she said.

Apprentices can apply to have "down time" added to the term of their apprentice allowance, and Wilson does not plan to ride this winter. Neither does Stein, who will spend the winter at his home in British Columbia, while working out logistics of moving to Ontario with his wife and young son.

Both Wilson and Stein are expected to benefit from their apprentice allowance until August, so a new battle of the bugs may be in store at Woodbine next season.

Fraser, meanwhile, will be broadening his horizons by riding in Australia this winter.

Beckon is galloping horses for Josie Carroll, a Woodbine-based trainer who will be competing at Santa Anita this winter, and hopes to ride there this winter.

A son of the late jockey Dan Beckon, Chad Beckon rode his first winner at Woodbine in September 2003, but suffered through a long dry spell the following year before relocating to Fort Erie.