10/23/2002 11:00PM

Figueroa 'doesn't need the bug'

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Something will be missing when jockey Omar Figueroa returns to the saddle Saturday at Bay Meadows. There will no longer be an asterisk beside his name, designating him as an apprentice rider receiving a five-pound weight allowance.

The allowance has been many an apprentice's best friend, and business often tails off when riders lose it and become journeymen. But many around Bay Meadows don't think Figueroa, currently fifth in the jockey standings with 25 wins after finishing third during the Bay Meadows spring meeting, will be affected.

"He doesn't need the bug," said Dennis Ward, who trains the northern California string for his son, Wesley, a former Eclipse Award-winning apprentice.

"He can do everything the old riders can do. He breaks from the gate, knows where to be, knows how to finish. He'll do good. He's got everything."

Trainer Lonnie Arterburn, a former rider himself, doesn't think losing the bug will be a hindrance to Figueroa.

"Usually it is, but not now," he said when asked if losing the bug would be a problem. "We're thin on riders right now. It will help that Jason Lumpkins [second in the jockey standings] is leaving."

Ward also pointed to Lumpkins's departure.

"Wherever Lumpy is at, [Figueroa] will take his spot" on live horses, Ward predicted.

Figueroa's agent is Dennis Patterson, who also handles Lumpkins's book locally.

Figueroa, 19, has just returned from a trip home to his native Puerto Rico, after receiving eight days of suspensions. Figueroa believes he put his apprentice status to good use.

"I remember the first time I rode," he said. "Someone told me, 'Ride for learning, not for winning,' and that's what I do."

But he's done a lot of winning, too, since he scored his first victory on the third mount of his career July 11, 2001, at Monmouth.

Even with the winning, he is concentrating on improvement.

"I pay attention and listen to all the jockeys," he said. "I watch the good jockeys and learn more than I did before. The riders out here have taught me a lot."

When Bay Meadows ended its spring meeting in June, Figueroa went south rather than ride on the fair circuit.

"That was good to go down there," he said. "Down south, I'd watch all the jockeys, and every time I rode they'd tell me something. I appreciate all they taught me."

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