11/26/2003 12:00AM

Former jockey Dittfach still in the game


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Hugo Dittfach was no stranger to the spotlight during a riding career that came to an end, by design, when he rode his 4,000th career winner in 1989 at Greenwood.

Dittfach, who won the inaugural Sovereign Award as Canada's outstanding jockey for 1975, was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1983, and was the recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award in 1991, has kept a much lower profile since turning his attention to training in 1990.

Hobbled by the wear and tear of his 33 years as a jockey, Dittfach has undergone surgery to replace one hip and will have surgery on the other this winter.

But at age 67, Dittfach still gets on his own horses every morning and will be looking to close out the 2004 meeting with a flourish, with three of his four horses slated to see action on this final weekend of the meeting.

Norfolk Knight, Artic Squire, and Millfleet have more in common than being trained by Dittfach. All three are offspring of the mare Artic Bleu. Norfolk Knight and Artic Squire are full brothers, and all three race for breeder Margaret Squires.

Norfolk Knight is the leading sibling of the moment. A 4-year-old, he is entered in a third-level allowance at seven furlongs Saturday.

Norfolk Knight also was nominated to Saturday's feature, the six-furlong Kennedy Road Stakes, and would have run there if the allowance had not filled.

"I'm trying to find the easiest spot for him," said Dittfach.

Artic Squire, a 7-year-old, will be entered Sunday in a second-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles, while Millfleet, a 2-year-old, will run in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special.

Before returning to action here last Saturday, Artic Squire had been away from the races for 3 1/2 years.

"He was more or less retired with a bad tendon," said Dittfach, adding that Artic Squire had done little during his absence other than roam the 25 acres of his owner's farm. "But he was never happy. He's a racetracker; he loves to be here, loves to compete. He's absolutely sound now, so I took a shot at bringing him back in again."

Artic Squire, who gave Dittfach his first and only stakes win as a trainer when he captured the $54,000 Deputy Minister here in 1999, finished last of seven in his first start back, beaten 13 1/2 lengths. But Dittfach was very pleased with the result.

"I was very excited with the way he ran," said Dittfach. "He had no foundation whatsoever. He came back in one piece, and he's the better horse for it."

Dittfach would have preferred to bring in Artic Squire much earlier, but until late in the season, he had only two stalls, which he gave to his two maidens, Norfolk Knight and Coffee for Me.

Time was of the essence for Norfolk Knight, who was unstarted at age 4 when he came into the racetrack this spring.

"He was a big question mark all along," said Dittfach. "We didn't know if he was ever going to make it."

Norfolk Knight's problem was his size. A gelding, he stands at a height of more than 17 hands, towering over the diminutive Dittfach.

"He was way too big," said Dittfach. "But I had big hopes for him. He needed lots of time to develop, and I gave it to him. He was sound coming in. I'm not easy on horses, but I believe a horse needs a good foundation. I wasn't worried about his ability."

Norfolk Knight didn't remain a maiden for long, winning the third start of his career June 12. He made 10 more appearances, winning three times and finishing second in three other races, while running his bankroll to $203,939.

"He was inexperienced," said Dittfach. "Everything to him was new. The horse never tailed off; he always gives his best. Every race he got beat, something wasn't quite right. He's just getting at his best now."

Indeed, Norfolk Knight is coming off the most impressive effort of his career, registering a front-running second-level allowance win here Nov. 9 under apprentice jockey Jill Scharfstein. His 1:22.05 clocking for seven furlongs there yielded a Beyer Speed Figure of 97.

"I didn't think he could run that fast," said Dittfach.

Scharfstein, who moved here this year from Western Canada, took over as Norfolk Knight's rider in his second outing and has been aboard for all but one of Norfolk Knight's subsequent starts.

"I think they both learned a lot from each other," said Dittfach. "He's made her a better rider, and she's made him a better racehorse."

Millfleet, who came to the track in late September along with Artic Squire, finished a closing sixth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths, in his debut at six furlongs Nov. 20.

"He was very impressive," said Dittfach, noting that Millfleet did not have his first breeze until Oct. 25. "Like I say, it's tough to do this in a day or two. It's crazy, but I didn't get a choice."