06/24/2002 11:00PM

Duran a late-starter and go-getter

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PLEASANTON, Calif. - Northern California has been a hotbed for talented apprentice riders for the past seven months, with Kevin Krigger and Omar Figueroa both making big splashes before heading for Southern California.

But quietly, Francisco Duran, who won his first race aboard Nice Calves on Dec. 30, has begun to make a name for himself as well.

The 25-year-old rider finished fourth in the Bay Meadows standings behind Russell Baze, Jason Lumpkins, and Figueroa. Although he has had offers to ride elsewhere, Duran decided to stay in northern California and ride on the summer fair circuit for the same reason he decided to ride here when starting out as an exercise rider: "There's more opportunities to get on horses than down south," he said.

Duran will ride two horses on Thursday's Alameda County Fair card, both for trainer Lloyd Mason. He's been named aboard Come to Mama in the day's feature race, a six-furlong $32,000 starter allowance for 3-year-old fillies, and Madam's Reply in a $12,500, six-furlong claimer for older fillies and mares.

"When he first came up here, he'd come by the barn and offer to work horses for free just to get the experience," Mason's assistant Faith Taylor said. "You could tell he had the desire."

Although 25 seems old to be making a start as a jockey, Duran has progressed quickly.

"I didn't grow up around horses," said Duran, who was raised in Ventura County in Southern California. "None of my family was involved in horses."

When he was 21, Duran enrolled in a jockey school where he learned the basics of horsemanship.

He eventually got his exercise license at Santa Anita, working horses briefly there before coming to northern California.

He spent two years exercising horses before applying for his jockey's license.

"Since I hadn't grown up around riders, I had a lot to learn," he said.

Duran worked a lot of horses for former rider Tony Diaz and also had a strong supporter in trainer Ed Moger Jr., who pointed him out to agent Tom "Bomber" Doutrich.

"We made a plan in November and laid out a map of what could happen," Doutrich said. "His goal was by March or April to be able to move his family up here." Duran has a wife and two children.

Duran met that goal and was "surprised" by his success at Bay Meadows. "It's an accomplishment I don't think anybody thought I'd achieve," he said.

Duran has caught the eye of trainers because horses seem to run for him.

"I'm not sure what makes horses run for riders, but he seems to be relaxed on them, and he gets along with them," Taylor said.

"He does get horses to run for him," Doutrich said. "He's switching sticks better now and learning to save ground and read races better."

For his part, Duran is a sponge, absorbing as much information as possible and trying to get as many mounts as possible for experience.

"Whatever mistakes I make, I always go to the video room or ask the guy next to me about it. I take advice from everybody," Duran said.