09/10/2003 11:00PM

Hanging his tack and hanging ten


POMONA, Calif. - Ryan Fogelsonger had his future flash before him last January when he spent a few days in Los Angeles to attend the Eclipse Awards Dinner and get the feel of a Southern California winter. But just to make sure, he put in a call to his close pal and fellow jockey Jeremy Rose at chilly Laurel in the Maryland countryside.

"What ya doin', man?" Ryan asked.

"I'm going out to ride the first race," Rose replied. "What do you want?"

"Just wondering what the weather's like," Ryan said.

"It's 20 degrees and I'm freezing," Rose shot back. "I'm all bundled up."

"That right? Well, I'm just hanging out here at Santa Anita. Wearing a pair of shorts."

Seven months later, Fogelsonger was unpacking shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and sunscreen - not to mention whips, boots, and saddles - as his great California adventure began.

"Everybody told me I ought to go to New York," Fogelsonger said. "But that one trip here was all I needed."

Leaving his native Maryland behind, the 22-year-old champion apprentice has committed heart and soul to the California circuit, fully aware that many a promising young East Coast rider has been chewed up and spit back home.

It happened to Steve Cauthen, no less, and to Cash Asmussen, both can't-miss champions who floundered in California like ducks in dry dock. Lesser names have tried to carve out a piece of the rich California lode and failed, most recently the prolific Maryland winner Mark Johnston, New Jersey ace Joe Bravo, and Midwestern star Robby Albarado.

Fogelsonger is forgiven, however, if he concentrates his swing thoughts on such transcontinental success stories as Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux, Sandy Hawley, and Chris Antley. They all made the East-West transition look easy, with consummate tradesmanship that turned them into popular California standbys.

Fogelsonger can fall back on a considerable amount of skill and self-confidence of his own.

He will reach 500 winners in barely a year and a half, and now he has descended upon California in the prime of a young career, red hair ablaze, complete with his apprentice Eclipse Award and a couple of journeyman championships to back it up.

Fogelsonger jumped in at the deep end, hitting town as the Del Mar meet was drawing to a close. He won with his very first mount last Sunday, then bagged the final race of the meet on Wednesday afternoon, after which he headed back to L.A. to prepare for his California county fair debut over the five-furlong oval at Fairplex Park, which opened on Friday. Don't look for him to miss a beat.

"A lot of people say the bullrings are difficult to ride, that speed is everything," said Fogelsonger, who cut his small-track teeth at Maryland's Timonuim fair. "Speed does help, because the turns are so sharp, and you can lose so much ground. But I don't find it really that difficult. I think people exaggerate. If you ride smart, it's like any other racetrack."

Sitting in the jocks' room lounge, Fogelsonger was taking time to talk before riding eight on the closing-day Del Mar card. He comes off a young-looking 22 with an easygoing rap, a sunburst tattoo on his right shoulder, and a sleeveless turtleneck T-shirt with "Lil' Jock" embroidered on the collar.

At 5 foot 3 and 105 pounds, Fogelsonger sports the loose, long-waisted physique of a marathon swimmer. He says he wouldn't mind picking up a little weight.

"I'd like to add couple pounds of muscle," he said. "I think its a huge advantage, not worrying about my weight. I can be as strong as I want, and I know it must be an advantage, not having to hit the box and lose all that weight. Mentally, too. Sometimes, cutting a lot of weight you can get light-headed. It's just nice to know that when I go out to dinner, if I want a pizza, I'm there."

With agent Michelle Barsotti in his corner and top trainers like Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill already giving him business, all that's left is for Fogelsonger to prove he can adapt to California's go-go riding style.

"Everybody out here, no matter what kind of horse they're on, comes out of there riding to get some kind of position," he said. "Back in Maryland, if I'm on a horse coming from out of it, I'll come out of the gate, put my hands down and just sit there, while the horses with speed will go on.

"I don't think the differences will be difficult, though," he added. "Once I've been riding for a little while, I'll get to know what everybody does. Some riders will hang you out. Some won't leave the rail for the life of them. It's just a matter paying attention and riding smart. The greatest riders are the smart ones."

And a lot of them end up in California.

"I love it here already," Fogelsonger said. "It seems more laid-back than Maryland. A whole different world. I brought my snowboard, and I want to learn how to surf. Everybody surfs out here, right?"

Yes, Ryan, everybody in California surfs. So get cracking.

"Don't worry, I will," he replied. "And I'd better start doing good, because I don't plan on going back."