08/09/2001 11:00PM

Dunkelberger's climb delayed - not derailed


WASHINGTON - For Travis Dunkelberger, Wednesday began as a typical day - a grueling one. Any jockey who wants to be the top race-winning rider in America has to work hard.

With four mounts on the opening-day program at Pimlico, Dunkelberger lost with his first three, but he captured the last race aboard a claiming horse named Torch the Halls. It was his 258th victory of the year, and put him one victory ahead of his friendly rival and fellow Marylander, Ramon Dominguez.

But Dunkelberger didn't have time to savor the victory. It was past 5:30 p.m., and he was booked to ride in seven races at Charles Town, the first at 7:45. He dashed from the Pimlico winner's circle to the jockeys' room, showered and dashed to his car, where his driver took him on the one-hour trip to West Virginia. At the jockeys' room there, he was able to eat a quick dinner from Taco Bell before starting his evening's labors.

Because of his preeminent status, Dunkelberger rides a lot of favorites, and he easily guided 4-to-5 shot Buffalo's Wave to a win in the second race, No. 259.

Ordinarily, the 24-year-old would ride throughout the card, go home and rest so he could repeat the same routine the next day and night. But this wouldn't be an ordinary evening. In the seventh race, Dunkelberger was riding a claiming horse named Southern Trail in a

4 1/2-furlong dash, the type of cheap sprint that is the basic fare at Charles Town.

Dunkelberger felt he was on his way to victory No. 260, until Southern Trail took a bad step and stumbled, catapulting the jockey over the animal's head. Instinctively, Dunkelberger rolled under the rail to get out of the way of oncoming horses, then assessed what had happened. "It wasn't that bad a spill," said the jockey, who once fractured his neck in a truly bad fall at Laurel Park. "It must have been the way I landed. I knew my collarbone was broken."

That forced him to sit anywhere from six to 12 weeks and shattered his hopes of being the country's top race-winning rider. But people in the racing community who have observed the youngster's skill and perseverance know he'll have other chances for glory.

Dunkelberger made his way circuitously from his native Sioux Falls, S.D., to Charles Town, where (after some abortive attempts elsewhere) he successfully launched his career as a jockey. He caught the eye of the leading Maryland trainer, Dale Capuano, who started using his services when he shipped horses to the minor leagues. After Capuano's regular Maryland rider, Edgar Prado, left for greener pastures in New York, the trainer started using Dunkelberger regularly on his horses in Maryland.

"Travis is excellent getting horses out of the gate and he can finish strong," Capuano said. "He's very aggressive; he's like Edgar in that he puts horses in position to win at the key part of the race."

As he started riding frequently at Laurel and Pimlico, Dunkelberger hired the top Maryland agent, Steve Rushing, who was already booking mount for Dominguez. The agent wondered if there might be some friction between two jockeys, but neither jockey ever grumbled that his rival was getting a better mount in a race. "They're two great people to work for," Rushing said.

Dunkelberger was making such a good living in the big leagues that many people wondered why he continued to ride in West Virginia. Capuano said, "I get after him about riding at night. I tell him if he's not sharp in the afternoon, he's not going to ride for me."

Rushing fretted that his jockey ran the risk of getting hurt riding cheap horses on the treacherous tight turns at Charles Town. But he understood why Dunkelberger was pushing himself. "If you want something bad enough," Rushing said, "you do it."

Dunkelberger didn't begin 2001 with a grand plan to ride day and night and be No. 1 in the nation. But his services were in great demand at Charles Town and he said, "I couldn't turn down the mounts. We make pretty good money there."

As his victory total swelled, and he saw his name atop the rider statistics in the Daily Racing Form every day, he said, "I just got caught up in it."

Now he'll have to learn to relax for a while. But when he was asked if he was disappointed about missing his chance to be America's leading jockey, he replied, "Not really. Ramon works as hard as I do - and he deserves it. If you earn it, you earn it. He's riding, and I ain't."

When he returns to action, Dunkelberger will be hearing more advice about the wisdom of riding day and night. But instead of thinking about managing his career more cautiously, the jockey is probably planning how he will become the No. 1 rider of 2002.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post