04/24/2006 11:00PM

Derby riders have big shoes to fill

John McKee, 24, who will ride Lawyer Ron, is among the next generation of Kentucky Derby jockeys.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If ever there were a year in the modern era to mark a changing of the guard among Kentucky Derby jockeys, this could be it.

The 132nd Derby will be the first since three Hall of Fame jockeys hung up their tack: Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, and Pat Day, who accounted for six Derby victories among them. And although everyday horseplayers are aware of the vacuum created by their retirements, casual sports fans might experience a real awakening to these seismic changes when the Derby is run May 6 at Churchill Downs.

In fact, with Derby Day just over a week away, only three Derby-winning jockeys have secured mounts for this year: Kent Desormeaux (who won on Real Quiet in 1998 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000), Patrick Valenzuela (Sunday Silence, 1989), and Victor Espinoza (War Emblem, 2002). This relative paucity of Derby-winning experience suggests that the top echelon of America's jockey colony is undergoing a major youth movement.

"Those Hall of Fame jockeys, they all worked really hard to get where they got," said John McKee, who will ride one of the favorites, Lawyer Ron, in the Derby. "What we younger riders have to do is persevere to follow in their footsteps."

McKee, 24, is among the next generation of jockeys striving to emulate the fabulous legacies left by Stevens, Day, and Bailey - not to mention Derby winners Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, and Eddie Delahoussaye, all of whom retired a few years before them. And although there still exists a core of highly accomplished veterans with varying degrees of good years remaining - including Desormeaux, Valenzuela, Edgar Prado, Alex Solis, Corey Nakatani, Jose Santos, and Mike Smith - the unmistakable trend is one of a substantial overhaul.

Besides McKee, a host of under-35 jockeys are enjoying major success in America today, led by John Velazquez (34), Garrett Gomez (34), Espinoza (33), Robby Albarado (32), Ramon Dominguez (29), Javier Castellano (28), and Rafael Bejarano (23). Except for the injured Velazquez, all have Derby mounts, or at least are being prominently mentioned for the handful of horses still without firm commitments.

"Jerry and Pat and Gary, those guys retiring, it's sad," said Smith, 40. "I was fortunate enough to learn a whole lot from those guys - and not just about riding, but in the way we handled ourselves. They were ambassadors for the sport."

Last year, in his 12th Derby mount, Smith finally got the win he thought he might not ever get when Giacomo prevailed at 50-1. He said he "really wanted that. . . . With all the opportunity I'd had, I was certainly glad to get that done."

Despite his Derby win, Smith's business in the months before and after has not approached his peak years of the early to mid-1990's, and he is realistic about how the faces of today's top jockeys seem to be getting younger. So far, Smith does not have a Derby mount this year.

"There are some pretty talented guys coming around, and that's great for the game," he said. "They're kind of taking over. It's great to see guys like Bejarano come along. He's a great rider, but he also seems like a good person, too. I've seen him handle himself with a lot of class."

As for younger jockeys assuming the mantle of leadership from the older generation, McKee said: "I'm ready for the opportunity if it comes. I feel confident about it. A lot of guys are in the same situation. They're prepared, they're ready. Sometimes it can be a matter of racing luck, getting to the top, but we're doing the work we need to get there."

Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, four of the top 24 Derby contenders still did not have confirmed rider commitments. Those horses are Storm Treasure, trained by Steve Asmussen; Flashy Bull, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin; and the Todd Pletcher duo of Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver. The connections of all four horses said Tuesday that they were in no hurry to commit.

Pletcher said Dominguez is under serious consideration for the mount on Bluegrass Cat, while Jeff Lifson, racing manager for the West Point Thoroughbreds syndicate that owns Flashy Bull, named Castellano, Smith, and Eibar Coa as possibilities for their colt.

Only 20 horses can start in the Derby, with eligibility determined by graded-stakes earnings.

Brother Derek the favorite?

Dan Hendricks, the trainer of Brother Derek, was one of several trainers on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call Tuesday. He gave this answer to a question about favoritism in this Derby: "I agree I should be one of [the favorites], but it's hard to separate Barbaro, Lawyer Ron, and myself - but that's what the betting public will have to do."

Mike Watchmaker, national handicapper for Daily Racing Form, said if the Derby were run tomorrow, these would be his top four favorites: Brother Derek, 7-2; Lawyer Ron, 5-1; Barbaro, 6-1; and Sweetnorthernsaint, 10-1.

* Mister Triester, the Illinois Derby runner-up, has been termed by owner B. Wayne Hughes as unlikely to run back in the Derby, although Hughes has not completely ruled it out. Mister Triester heads the prospective field for Churchill's opening-day feature, the one-mile Derby Trial on Saturday.

* As of Tuesday evening, 12 Derby hopefuls (not including Mister Triester, Red Raymond, or Malameeze) were stabled at Churchill. Sweetnorthernsaint and Cause to Believe were the most recent arrivals, from Maryland and northern California, respectively.