06/22/2006 11:00PM

Fresh wave of talent

Vassar Photo
Apprentice jockey Martin Garcia is thriving at Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Juan Ochoa knew he had arrived as an apprentice jockey when he looked around the Hollywood Park jockeys' room earlier this year and realized who he was riding against.

"I'm learning from the big guys - Patrick Valenzuela, Victor Espinoza, Alex Solis," he said on a recent afternoon.

Ochoa is not alone. Fellow apprentice jockeys Martin Garcia and Saul Arias are having successful meetings at Hollywood Park this year, riding against some of the best riders in the nation.

Two of the apprentices are in the top 10, which is a rarity in Southern California. Last summer, there were no apprentice jockeys ranked in the top 10 at the spring-summer meeting. Through Thursday, Garcia was tied for third in the standings with 26 wins, well behind leaders Valenzuela (47) and Espinoza (45). Ochoa was seventh with 22 wins, one of which came in a stakes. Arias was 14th with 12 wins. Farther down the list, the apprentice William Antongeorgi 3rd has scored two wins at the meeting.

Arias, Garcia, and Ochoa are part of a changing roster among jockeys in Southern California. In the last five years, the circuit has lost Hall of Fame jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux, Julie Krone, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Mike Smith, and Gary Stevens to retirement or relocation.

In their absence, young riders are trying to fill the void. By far, Garcia has made the biggest impact. Despite missing the first two weeks of the meeting while riding at Golden Gate Fields, where he won the riding title at that track's spring meeting, Garcia has quickly moved up the Hollywood Park standings.

Garcia, a 21-year-old native of Mexico, says he overcame doubts when he first arrived in Southern California, wondering if he could extend the success he had achieved at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.

"I'm more relieved and more comfortable now," Garcia said. "I know about more trainers and they know me."

Garcia's ranking is the highest for an apprentice in this decade at a Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. Mick Ruis finished the 2004 meeting in fifth place, and Tyler Baze finished the 2000 meeting in ninth. Baze, currently fifth in the Hollywood Park standings, later won the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding apprentice jockey in 2000.

Garcia is already thinking big. He does not want to be just the leading apprentice in town, and said his goal for the Del Mar meeting later this summer is to win the title.

"I want to try to win more," he said. "It doesn't matter where."

Ochoa, 23, is a Southern California native whose parents work for trainer Jerry Fanning. Ochoa won his first stakes in the Quicken Tree Stakes aboard Der Ali last Sunday.

"It's good to do that, especially here at Hollywood Park, where all of the top riders are," he said.

Ochoa expected to have a successful meeting at Hollywood Park after winning 41 races at Santa Anita earlier this year and finishing sixth in the standings.

"I thought I'd be in the top 10 if I worked hard," he said.

He said learning from Solis, Valenzuela, and Espinoza has been invaluable.

"They come up to me and say, You can do better next time," Ochoa said. "They show me things coming out of the gate and turning for home."

Ochoa loses his apprentice claim on Aug. 6, but has no plans to leave Southern California. His goal is to maintain position as a leading rider.

He has a fan in Baze.

"Juan has a good clock in his head," said Baze, 23, who has been riding since he was 16. "He's a good kid. He's got a good head on his shoulders."

Arias, Garcia, and Ochoa say they have a cordial relationship but are not close.

"We're friends in the room," Arias said. "On the track, it is competitive."

Arias, 27, is the oldest of the current apprentice jockeys. A native of Colombia, he went to college there and in Southern California before he began exercising horses. After spending time on a farm in Florida working horses, he returned to Southern California last fall to begin riding.

Earlier this year, Arias went through a span at Santa Anita when seemingly every horse he rode paid $30 or more. They included Dee's a Legend ($81.60) and Hudson Bank ($183.20) on Feb. 20 and Clan Chief ($34.20) on Feb. 25.

Arias retains his apprentice claim through November and may gain mounts later this year after Ochoa loses his apprentice status in early August.

"I want to finish the year good and stay away from injury," Arias said.

Arias, who has been riding for less than a year, came here from Arizona last winter. He said he feels it is an accomplishment just to be winning races on a major circuit.

"I'm glad I'm doing it right here," Arias said. "I feel good here. The riders are helping me, and it's good experience."

Hollywood's hot bugs

Martin Garcia

Starts: 158
Earnings: $772, 696

Juan Ochoa

Starts: 189
Earnings: $778,126

Saul Arias

Starts: 119
Earnings: $350,040

Hollywood jockey standings

Patrick Valenzuela19247
Victor Espinoza18945
David Cohen19226
Martin Garcia15826
Tyler Baze18324
Corey Nakatani10423
Juan Ochoa18922
Jon Court16217
Alex Solis9117
David Flores12317
Martin Pedroza13916
Aaron Gryder16415
Michael Baze9815
Saul Arias11912

Meet statistics through June 22