06/18/2004 12:00AM

Fast start for a feathery apprentice jockey


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - A positive attitude and the ability to tack 102 pounds has helped Jorge Espitia launch his riding career at Hastings. A 10-pound apprentice, Espitia shipped to Hastings a couple of weeks ago, and he's won two races, finished second four times, and generally made a favorable impression in his 20 mounts.

Espitia, 28, was born in California but was raised in Mexico. He moved back to California a few years ago and began galloping horses at Hollywood Park, where former jockey and now trainer Jose Corrales encouraged Espitia to consider a career as a jockey. "I hadn't really thought about it until Jose gave me a push. He said that since I was so light and learned quickly that I could probably do well as a jockey," Espitia said. "So I started working more horses in the mornings, and I finally decided to give it a try."

Espitia began riding at Sunland Park in New Mexico last winter, but he was only riding a couple of longshots a week. Local trainers Peter Stephen and Dennis Terry had horses at Sunland, and they liked what they saw. They encouraged Espitia to come to Hastings, where apprentices have done extremely well in recent years, particularly Nicola Wright and Emma Abbott. The five-pound Canadian-bred allowance in certain races gives light riders like Espitia a big advantage, and he will be only a couple of pounds over when he rides Castle Mountain at 100 pounds in the feature race Sunday. He weighed in at 106 pounds when he won a race aboard Cheatin Charlie for Terry last weekend, and that was 13 pounds less than the second-place finisher.

"I think he's going to do well here," said Terry. "He just wants to learn as much as possible and he rode my horse exactly like I told him. I also think he'll improve quickly. At Sunland, he wasn't riding much stock, and it's hard to learn anything on horses that aren't running. He'll ride a lot better stock here so the learning curve will be greater. Plus he'll get a lot of good advice from guys like Peter Stephen and his agent Wayne Snow."

Terry is a former jockey who had a lot to do with the successful career of jockey Mark Patzer, and it won't hurt Espitia having Terry helping him out also. Espitia had never ridden on a track as small as the Hastings oval - a little more than five furlongs - before arriving here, but he certainly understands what it will take to be successful. "I'm still learning, but I understand how important it is to stay close to the rail," he said. "It's nice to win my first two, and I'm hoping to win a lot more."

Joining Espitia from Sunland is journeyman rider Roberto Ramirez. He's won over 400 races and has earned $3.7 million in purses. He's also familiar with a smaller track, having ridden at Los Alamitos. His reason for coming to Hastings: "I've come for the adventure," he said.

Trainer Peter Stephen reported that it could be a while before we see Mark of Diablo. A 3-year-old colt, Mark of Diablo was very impressive winning the City of Vancouver Stakes and Stephen had planned on running him in the Alberta Derby Saturday. "He came up with a nasal infection," said Stephen. "I'm not sure how long it will take before he's a 110 percent, but I won't put him back into training until he is."

Taking his place in the 3-year-old division is Tobe Suave, who finished third in the Victoria Park Stakes at Woodbine last weekend. He was purchased by Great Canadian Gaming Corporation CEO Ross Mcleod and is trained by Steve Bryant. Great Canadian is the majority owner of Hastings.

According to trainer Robbie Anderson, Regal Red came out of her 6 1/2-length win in the Emerald Downs Handicap last weekend in good shape. Anderson said he wasn't sure where she would be making her next start. "Either the Liberation July 1 or I might give her a break and aim for the Nainamo (July 18) and then the Stallion Stakes on British Columbia Cup Day," he said. "I'll have to give her a break sometime, and I'm just not sure when."

Regal Red has won her last four races by a combined 21 1/4 lengths, and her jockey, Frank Fuentes, has never even cocked his whip.