11/24/2008 12:00AM

The game's rising stars

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While we contemplate a final flurry of major stakes over the Thanksgiving weekend, the waning days of fall always seems timely to look at a handful of jockeys and trainers who may become important figures in 2009.

In prior years, similar previews pointed out budding young riding stars Rafael Bejarano, Tyler Baze, Julien Leparoux, Michael Baze, Joe Talamo, Jose Lezcano, Joel Rosario, Alonso Quinonez, Alan Garcia, Elvis Trujillo, and Eddie Castro.

This year, while scouting for new jockey talent, I have been most impressed by the unsung Channing Hill and Rajiv Maragh in New York; Inez Karlsson in Chicago; Jamie Theriot in New Orleans and Kentucky; Chantal Sutherland in Canada during the summer and in Southern California this fall; Rosie Napravnik in Maryland; and possibly Pascacio Lopez in Florida, who has shown wonderful talent and a not-so-wonderful penchant for dangerous behavior.

Among trainers singled out in previous years were Tom Amoss, Tim Richey, Bruce Levine, Michael Trombetta, Kirk Ziadie, and Jayne Vaders.

Among relatively new trainers, Michael Maker is having a breakthrough year after gaining a solid foundation since leaving Todd Pletcher, while Seth Benzel, who also worked under Pletcher after a stint with Bill Mott, is having a strong rookie run at Aqueduct after a slow start through the summer. At lower-profile tracks, Douglass Shanyfelt has been winning races in bunches in West Virginia, and Stephanie Beattie, former wife of high-percentage trainer Todd Beattie, is off and running in Pennsylvania.

Among trainers who have been around for a while but have raised their game to a new level, former jockey Wesley Ward was most impressive at several venues with young horses in 2008 and seems headed for better.

Hill, a hard-working journeyman jockey, has ridden flawlessly under a variety of circumstances in 2008 and he could move up into the ranks of jockeys who are called to catch a flight and ride a high-profile horse in a high-profile stakes. His winning ride in the slop aboard Dry Martini in the Stuyvesant Handicap on Nov. 15 was a study in patience, with keen awareness of the positive outside-lane bias and of a solid finishing technique. Throughout the year, Hill has shown a willingness to go through narrow openings on the rail when needed, go to the lead when the pace scenario favored that tactic, and the ability to patiently ride a good grass horse. This is a very good jockey who only needs good horses to move up the standings.

Maragh made a positive impression last winter on the inner dirt track and continued to offer confident rides on numerous occasions throughout the year for some of the best trainers on the grounds. At the bottom line, Maragh is developing into one of the more reliable jockeys on the circuit while seldom attracting serious mutuel action.

Apprentice jockey Inez Karlsson made a positive impression at Arlington this summer, despite occasional rookie mistakes. At Hawthorne, she has been a touch smoother. However, she is quite streaky and is still on a learning curve. That said, Karlsson possesses a relatively strong finishing technique and has a chance to become one of the circuit's leading riders within a year or two.

Theriot has a good all-around game that is no longer a secret to horsemen and horseplayers who focus on racing in Kentucky and Louisiana. Theriot even won 2 of the 3 races he rode at Saratoga in 2008 and is a cinch to be involved in major stakes races for Midwest-based trainers who will send him coast to coast in 2009.

Sutherland has been among the leading riders at Woodbine for the past few years and has been equally impressive in her limited engagements in Southern California. What I liked best about her was her expert work on the 6 1/2-furlong downhill turf course at Santa Anita and her ability to ride with confidence in heavy traffic. Sutherland eventually might go back to Canada, but she can ride with the top jockeys anywhere and will be worth following if she remains in Southern California through the winter and spring.

Napravnik has shown considerable poise and talent riding in Maryland in between a series of severe injuries that cost her more than a year on the sidelines since November 2005. Napravnik is rumored to be heading to New York for the winter season, a positive for New York horseplayers.

Lopez has won bunches of races at Calder all year as if he was destined for national stardom. Yet he also incurred more than 60 days in suspensions for unnecessarily rough rides, and Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Calder, has banned him from all of its tracks through Jan. 2, the end of the Tropical at Calder meet.

If Lopez fails to grow up, good riddance to him in a game when lives are put on the line. But if he wises up, the sky is the limit.

Maker has made good use of his solid background in the sport and is ripping off 40 percent winners as Churchill comes to a close. He is heading for the meet training title there, having broken the record for wins at a Churchill fall meet. Maker also won a few stakes this year and is gearing up to be a factor on the 2009 Triple Crown chase.

Benzel struggled through a horrible start to his career this year, but has been in good form at Aqueduct to signal that he too is ready to make a forward move. Benzel is shipping several promising turf horses to Gulfstream Park and will be a factor with sprinters on the New York winter track.

Shanyfelt is one of the best-kept secrets outside West Virginia. A patient trainer who picks his spots carefully, Shanyfelt has been winning at 30 percent to 40 percent all year with his stable of older dirt horses for flat-bet profits in most categories. In the age of simulcasting, there is no reason players in other states cannot cash some tickets playing Shanyfelt horses at Mountaineer.

Stephanie Beattie used to assist her husband. On her own now, Beattie has been consistently above 30 percent for more than two full years and is showing positive returns on investment with horses first or second time out after acquiring them through the claim box and with horses she has stretched out in distance or put on the synthetic track at Presque Isle.

Ward, who once upon a time rode for Woody Stephens, has been a successful trainer in New York, California, and Florida for several years. But in 2008, Ward was razor sharp with his juvenile maidens and he seems ready to take that skill to the next level in 2009. Look for Ward to win more than his usual share at Gulfstream during the winter, Saratoga, and Del Mar during the summer, and perhaps develop one of his precocious young horses into a stakes-class 3-year-old.

As for this weekend's flurry of stakes, Nick Zito's Commentator was kept out of the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and BC Classic to run in the $400,000 Clark at Churchill. It seems likely that this very fast horse will run one of his top Beyer Speed Figures.

In New York, where Commentator would be a lock to win the $300,000 Cigar Mile, Zito is running the useful Wanderin Boy in his place.

Wanderin Boy always runs well, but has run into Curlin a few too many times. No horse in the Cigar Mile field has much of an edge, but for what it is worth, I'll take a small shot with Tale of Ekati, winner of the Jerome at this distance in his last outing for Barclay Tagg.

In the Remsen for 2-year-olds, Hello Broadway will be worth a look, and in the companion Demoiselle, Sky Diva is the one to beat after her good effort in the BC Juvenile Fillies.

In the $500,000 Hollywood Derby on Sunday, Midships has some strong European races to recommend, and he reportedly has worked four times at Santa Anita for Bobby Frankel.