08/12/2002 11:00PM

Figueroa, older and wiser, returns north

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Apprentice Omar Figueroa, who finished third in the jockey standings at the Bay Meadows spring meeting, will begin to ride full-time in northern California on Thursday.

Figueroa, who had 39 wins, 40 seconds, and 40 thirds from 268 mounts at the Bay Meadows meeting, is listed to ride six horses Thursday at the Bay Meadows Fair, including Benchclearingbrawl, the likely favorite in a five-furlong 2-year-old maiden claiming race.

Figueroa had three mounts at the Bay Meadows Fair on Sunday, winning a sprint with heavily favored Southerly Flow and finishing third in a turf race aboard Dream Weekend.

Figueroa went south after the Bay Meadows meeting closed, riding at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. He was injured at Hollywood Park when a mount jumped the inner fence on the turf course.

"He lost five winners after that," his agent, Mark North, said. "When we went to Del Mar, we had to start all over again."

Figueroa had only one win from 26 mounts at Del Mar, but he also had five seconds and seven thirds. Wednesday he returns to Del Mar to ride a pair of horses for trainer Armando Lage.

"We're going down Wednesday because Armando is our main man," North said.

Northern California has had three excellent apprentices over the past nine months. Kevin Krigger made a big splash at the Golden Gate Fields meeting before leaving for Southern California. Figueroa also performed well. Francisco Duran has improved greatly and has been the leading rider on the fairs.

North said the time spent in Southern California was beneficial to Figueroa.

"Omar learned so much from those guys," North said. "Eddie Delahoussaye was helping him and so was Laffit [Pincay Jr.].

"He's still kind of a diamond in the rough.

"I think going south helped him because I think we've picked up some horses when they are shipped north. It was a good showcase for him."

Lage likes what he sees in Figueroa, who will keep his bug until October.

"He's a bug boy who rides like a journeyman," Lage said. "He switches sticks good, has a good sense of pace, doesn't let the big guys intimidate and can be aggressive. He's still a kid, but he's a very good rider."

North said it was Figueroa's idea to return to northern California now.

"This will give him an opportunity to get his business built up before the Bay Meadows meet," North said. "He will go to Sacramento to ride there until Bay Meadows starts."