08/13/2009 11:00PM

Graham in contention for first riding title

Sunny Taylor/Coady Photography
Rebel Stakes winner Win Willy is preparing for his comeback race.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - It is a long way, both in distance and character, from the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Dublin, Ireland, to suburban Arlington Park. Jockey James Graham has a foot in both worlds - and a chance for his first riding title this summer at Arlington.

Graham, 30, had ridden 65 Arlington winners coming into Friday's action, one fewer than leading rider Junior Alvarado. Graham was slow in June, with just nine winners, but he rebounded with a good July, and already has 12 victories here through half of August. Graham and longtime agent Britt McGehee have business cutting through a wide swath of local horsemen. That can help in avoiding cold snaps, and with any luck, Graham should be in the thick of the jockeys' race with Alvarado and E.T. Baird until the end of this meet.

Not that Graham will admit to anything like gunning for the title.

"As long as I work as hard as I can, and come back safe," said Graham, whose wife, Lisa, is expecting their second child this fall.

Graham was edged out of a title at the mini-meet at Kentucky Downs on the final day of racing there in 2005, and he has finished second in the jockey standings at both Fair Grounds and Arlington. Winning, losing, whatever - Graham's approach never varies. He gets up in the morning and works as many horses as he can squeeze into his schedule. He goes out in the afternoon and rides as hard as he can. And Graham has come a long way since he showed up at Fair Grounds back in 2003.

"James Graham is an example of what hard work and having a dream will do for you," said trainer Tom Amoss, who regularly gives Graham business. "He's as hard-working a rider as I've ever seen. He came to Fair Grounds as an exercise rider riding training races for people."

Now, Graham has a steady circuit of Fair Grounds, Keeneland, and Arlington, and he gets on winners wherever he goes. Graham won't back down in the jocks' room or out on the racetrack, but his fierce streak in competition vanishes during the day-to-day.

"To know him is to like him," said Amoss. "He's a kind, kind person."

Graham currently is in the U.S. on a three-year sportsman's visa, but he has applied for a green card. More Arlington, less Dublin in his future.

Win Willy works toward Remington

The 2009 Rebel Stakes winner Win Willy continues working along toward his first start since the Arkansas Derby, and posted his fifth Arlington work on Aug. 12, going five furlongs in 1:01.60. But a comeback race at Arlington is unlikely for Win Willy, according to Hugh Robertson, who is overseeing Win Willy's training for his son, trainer Mac Robertson, who is based this summer at Canterbury Park.

Hugh Robertson said Win Willy was likely to join Mac's string at Remington Park, by which time the horse should be nearing race readiness.

"He's doing really well," the elder Robertson said Thursday at Arlington.

Win Willy's connections intended to start him in the Kentucky Derby, but he came up with an ankle injury the week of the race, and was taken out of training.

Romacaca points for Pucker Up

Owner Frank Calabrese won the 2007 Pucker Up Stakes with homebred Dreaming of Anna. This year, if things go as planned, he will have a chance for another Pucker Up with Romacaca, a horse Calabrese claimed for just $25,000 on April 17 at Gulfstream Park.

Romacaca won for the second time in a row the day she was claimed, and she has gone 3 for 3 at the Arlington meet while racing on turf. Romacaca came from slightly off the pace winning an entry-level allowance race in her first start this summer, but has led all the way in consecutive easy wins in overnight stakes races, the most recent the Hatoof on Aug. 8.

"She came out of that race well," said trainer Danny Miller. "The Pucker Up's the plan."

Romacaca won the Hatoof by more than five lengths, but jockey E.T. Baird told Miller that while he used his whip to keep Romacaca focused in front of a large, loud crowd, there probably was more in the tank that afternoon.

"Eddie said the other day he never really asked her," said Miller.

The Grade 3 Pucker up on Sept. 7 has often been a useful stepping-stone to the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland in October.