10/28/2004 11:00PM

Emigh steady at the top

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STICKNEY, Ill. - A couple of weeks ago, Chris Emigh was winning Hawthorne races at a breakneck clip, and he rushed to the top of the jockey standings. Now, Emigh merely holds a commanding lead in the local jockey colony, but his success still is striking.

Emigh ended the Arlington meet third in the standings, but he was 53 victories behind Rene Douglas and 15 behind second-place Eddie Razo, who came to Hawthorne with a full head of steam. But it was for Emigh that all the pieces fell into place, and through Thursday's races, Emigh had 32 victories, 12 more than Larry Sterling. Moreover, Emigh's big run made him a wanted man: He has ridden 182 horses at the meet, a number 30 greater than the next-highest total.

"We had a lot - a lot - of business coming over here," said Emigh, referring to himself and his agent, Jay Fedor. "We knew we'd have a lot of stables, and we had the right horses at the right time. Jay did a good job with that."

Emigh, a 33-year-old journeyman from Louisiana, has won a couple of Chicago riding titles, though not at Arlington. He has been doing this long enough to stay stable during hot streaks and cold, tracing his success to the particular horses he rides more than the way he rides them.

"I'm not doing anything different," Emigh said. "If you're just riding one good one a week, and you mess it up, they say, 'That sucker's not doing any good.' If you're on three or four good ones a day, it's easier."

Emigh's challenge is to keep up the pace. The Hawthorne meet runs through the first of January - a long way to go, and a long time to stay hot.

Air Academy goes to next level

Air Academy is by Breeders' Cup Mile winner Royal Academy, and his dam, Barn Swallow, was an accomplished grass mare. So, how peculiar did it seem that Air Academy scored an elusive second career win in a race that was moved from turf to dirt by wet weather?

His Illinois-bred entry-level allowance condition finally behind him, Air Academy goes in Hawthorne's featured sixth race Sunday, a statebred-restricted second-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Perhaps Air Academy now has the hang of things. Or, perhaps he just prefers the Hawthorne lifestyle to that at Arlington.

"I don't really know what happened to him over at Arlington," said trainer Brian Williamson. He kind of hit a wall over there. He wasn't working as good, and he just seemed to be going through the motions. Since we got him back over here, he's trained with renewed vigor."

Air Academy can win right back because the competition Sunday is not especially strong, and unlike horses that have suddenly jumped up with a peak race to clear a condition, Air Academy has gotten to this point gradually.

Also in the hunt is Rockhurst, who has gotten good the last six weeks; Crusader Jo, who has been stuck in this condition for two calendar years; and Des Arc, another recent Illinois-bred entry-level allowance winner.

Beret headed for Cardinal at Churchill

Thursday, Williamson sent out the grass mare Beret for a six-furlong dirt work that was timed in 1:14.80, second-fastest of 10 works at the distance. Williamson termed the breeze "super," and said Beret remained on track for the Grade 3 Cardinal Handicap next month at Churchill Downs.

"She got her last quarter in 24 seconds, and that was working by herself," Williamson said.

Beret has flirted with being a graded stakes horse before. In her last start, she convincingly won the Indian Maid Stakes over the Hawthorne turf.

* Two of the best Illinois-bred 2-year-olds - Stormy Afternoon and Humor at Last - worked this week and are set for a Nov. 13 matchup in the $100,000-added Sun Power, one of six Illinois-bred stakes that day. Thursday, Stormy Afternoon breezed a half-mile in 48.20 seconds, and on Friday, Humor at Last went a half-mile in 49.40.