Updated on 09/17/2011 11:43AM

For Duran, fairs were launch pad

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Northern California's fair circuit is a cauldron of opportunity for owners, trainers, and jockeys.

It allows virtual unknowns to compete with established horsemen, and it can be a proving ground, particularly for riders.

Last year, riding on the fair circuit nearly catapulted Francisco Duran to an Eclipse Award as the nation's leading apprentice.

Duran won 215 races as an apprentice and was one of three Eclipse finalists. After finishing fourth in the jockey standings at Bay Meadows, Duran's opportunities grew and he rode daily on the fair circuit at Stockton, Pleasanton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, the Bay Meadows Fair, and Sacramento. As he rode more and more races, his skills improved.

"Riding at the fairs had a lot to do with my success," he said. "It was a big key to it."

Duran wound up the summer as the fair circuit's leading rider. Although he spent only one week at Stockton because of its overlapping schedule with Bay Meadows, he won the riding title there.

He also won the title at the Bay Meadows Fair meeting with 16 victories, edging Russell Baze and Jason Lumpkins by one victory. "I felt good about myself, accomplishing something like that," Duran said. "It hadn't happened in a long time, somebody beating Russell. I felt good about that."

Duran's growth on the fair circuit earned him the mount on San Nicolas in the Grade 3 Longacres Mile last summer for trainer Jeff Bonde, and he finished third in his first ride in a graded stakes.

The fairs provided plenty of highlights for Duran, but, more importantly, they accelerated his development as a rider.

"There are different environments and track conditions every two weeks," he said. "You learn some tricks and certain things about the tracks."

Duran will attack the fairs the same way this year as a journeyman, planning to ride full-time at each of the summer stops.

"I need to keep working," he said. "I need to get more experience. I learned a lot last year, and now I've lost my apprenticeship - but that doesn't mean I'm not still learning."

Duran especially looks forward to riding Santa Rosa, where last year he had his first four-win day. "Santa Rosa was my favorite," he said. "There's such an excitement there and so many people."