04/05/2002 12:00AM

Despite loss, trip to Dubai a treat for Melancon


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - On Thursday night, two men rode under the lights at Lone Star Park, as they did in Dubai last month. For one - Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who won the Dubai World Cup aboard Street Cry - the trip to Dubai is a yearly occurrence. For the other, Gerard Melancon, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Melancon rode Bonapaw, Louisiana's top sprinter, in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen. Bonapaw finished sixth behind Caller One after stumbling at the start and, Melancon said, never grabbing hold of the bridle. Despite the loss, seeing that part of the world was an experience Melancon will always treasure.

"It was so Americanized, you wouldn't believe it," said Melancon, who spent 12 days there with his wife, Annette. "People think it's just a bunch of desert, but it's like New York City."

While awaiting the opportunity to ride Bonapaw in the days leading up to the race, Melancon worked several other horses. One of those was Val Royal, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Mile.

The only downside was the length of the trip: 18 hours of flight time, not including layovers.

"They'd show on the TV's in the plane where we were on our way there," he said. "We passed close to that no-fly zone in Iraq. I was like, 'Oh, no.'"

While away, he missed nearly two weeks of riding at Fair Grounds, but still held on for third in the standings behind Eddie Martin and Robby Albarado. He finished with 68 wins on the meet, his highest total at Fair Grounds since he was an apprentice in 1984.

Now he seeks to build upon that successful season with a top meet at Lone Star Park, where he rode for the first time in 2001. Last year he tied Glen Murphy for sixth with 34 wins.

Lanerie sure to be challenged

The target for all the riders at Lone Star Park is Corey Lanerie, the track's all-time leading jockey, with 292 victories here.

With the exception of 2000, when he rode in Chicago over the spring and summer, he has annually ranked among the four leading riders here. He set a Lone Star record with 102 wins in 1999, and was a clear winner of the riding title last year, when he had 80 wins and was the primary rider for trainer Steve Asmussen.

This year Asmussen plans to use several riders among his vast stable, which should create a hotly contested battle for leading rider.

"I think it's wide open," Lanerie said. "There are a lot of riders here that are capable, and it will probably boil down to who gets a good start and gets the jump on everyone."

Working in Lanerie's favor is his experience with both Louisiana and Texas horsemen. Before riding at Fair Grounds the past five years, he was twice leading rider at Sam Houston. Nearly two-thirds of the horses at Lone Star Park race at those two tracks over the winter.

Regardless of how this meet unfolds, Lanerie is riding a high following the Fair Grounds meet. After winning 36 races at Fair Grounds during the 2000-2001 meet, he finished fifth this past meet with 65 wins.

Among those winners was Parade Leader in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, the richest win of Lanerie's career.

"I can't tell you how good that feels, coming by them at the eighth pole and knowing you are going to win that kind of race," he said.

Now his focus is on Texas. Besides the recognition that comes with being leader rider, there is an added bonus at Lone Star Park. The leading rider here gets the opportunity to compete against the nation's most successful riders in the All-Star Jockey Championship on June 21.

Abajo catches a break

Abajo hasn't won since Feb. 25 of last year, a slump that appears likely to end in Sunday's ninth race, a $36,000 allowance at 5 1/2 furlongs.

A multiple stakes winner of more than $540,000, Abajo comes off a Fair Grounds campaign in which he repeatedly raced against Bonapaw - which contributed to his absence of victories.

After competing in 12 straight stakes, he should relish a rare allowance appearance. Casey Lambert rides for Asmussen.

In the seventh race, the unbeaten Baybee's Prospect seeks to improve her record to 3 for 3 in a one-mile allowance. A daughter of Allen's Prospect, she races for the first time outside Louisiana-bred company.