12/01/2009 12:00AM

Headed straight for the top


In some years it is relatively easy to spot several low-profile jockeys and trainers who seem poised to make stronger impressions during the next season.

It was no stretch of imagination to predict national stardom for Julien Leparoux, Joe Talamo, and Joel Rosario when they began their stellar careers as apprentice jockeys a few years ago. Nor was it difficult to foresee similar success for Rajiv Maragh last year, or Tyler Baze several years ago.

Forecasting national impact for Wayne Lukas disciples Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Mike Maker was equally straightforward and useful, given that they had developed winning tendencies by which horseplayers could profit as they moved out on their own and began to train for high-power racing stables.

Admittedly, this year - a year dominated on and off the track by the exceptional performances of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta - there have been very few new or low-profile jockeys and trainers who seem ready to move onto the national stage.

From what I saw in person, only jockey Junior Alvarado and trainer Tim Ice made the kind of positive impressions that compare favorably with the jockeys and trainers who made this annual list in prior seasons.

Alvarado, 23 and convalescing from shoulder surgery that he endured after winning the Arlington riding title, caught the eye first of Arlington Park's paddock host Jessica Pacheco, who strongly suggested during my Arlington visit in August that he was a star in the making.

Pacheco was right on the money. Alvarado, a native of Venezuela and new to American racing, was quick out of the gate and combined the smooth, steady seat of a proven veteran with the aggressiveness of a hungry new rider. He won races on the lead, from mid-pack, and with a strong finishing technique on dirt, turf, and with sprinters and routers with relatively equal skill. When he recovers fully from his shoulder injury, Alvarado is due to ride at Tampa Bay Downs this winter and return to Chicago for the summer Arlington meet. That said, I can easily see Alvarado picking up mounts from Chicago-based trainers who ship out of the region for graded stakes. He has all the tools.

Ice was a relative unknown until he came through the Triple Crown series with Summer Bird, and he made a strong impression developing that strong-bodied son of Birdstone from his third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby to a probable Eclipse Award as the nation's leading

3-year-old male.

While Ice certainly had a talented Thoroughbred to train in 2009, very few horsemen in my lifetime have demonstrated such maturity and overall horsemanship in his first time at bat on the national stage.

After Summer Bird finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby in only his fourth start, Ice properly reasoned that Summer Bird had defeated 13 horses in the Derby field and had considerable room for improvement. To assist that development, Ice equipped Summer Bird with blinkers and was rewarded with a 2 3/4-length victory over Dunkirk and Derby winner Mine That Bird in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

In his next start, Summer Bird finished second in the Haskell, beaten six lengths by Rachel Alexandra, in an effort that was not a true measure of their relative abilities, given Summer Bird's drop back to nine furlongs from the Belmont distance. Moreover, Summer Bird showed more tactical speed in that nine-furlong stakes and held grittily for second when it was clear he was not really up to handling the great 3-year-old filly running on a Monmouth track she loved at a distance made to order for her natural talents.

But as his plan moved forward, Ice used the Haskell as a true prep race for a convincing win in the 10-furlong Travers Stakes at Saratoga - a victory that was followed by an equally impressive score over older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Given Zenyatta's tour de force in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the generally favorable form turf horses usually show on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride track, Summer Bird's fourth-place finish behind Zenyatta and the world-class turf horses Gio Ponti and Twice Over was another overall plus in the way Ice got the most out of his equine protege.

With expert work like that, I will be surprised if Tim Ice does not attract attention from owners of quality racehorses seeking a trainer with all the skills needed to succeed on the highest levels.

Aside from Alvarado and Ice, there were a few jockeys and trainers who might deserve following as they move forward into the new year. Specifically, 18-year-old apprentice jockey Dusty Shepherd showed some spark in Maryland during the summer. Christian Santiago Reyes, 19, also had his good moments riding in Kentucky and Southern California under the guidance of trainer Wesley Ward, who was a top apprentice jockey in his own right before he became a high-percentage trainer.

Reyes, occasionally prone to be overly aggressive in tight spots, or rushing his mounts into contention after an awkward break, will need to learn from such common rookie miscues to reach his full potential.

A trio of older riders also deserve some positive mention: Eurico Rosa Da Silva, Daniel Centeno, and Shane Sellers.

Da Silva, 33 and a native of Brazil, has been successful in Macau and Canada for several seasons, but this year he attracted more attention winning the Queen's Plate aboard Eye of the Leopard and was the regular rider for Breeders' Cup sprinter Fatal Bullet, who also was the 2008 Horse of the Year in Canada. Given his good handling of those horses Da Silva is another rider who might attract more graded stakes action in America next year.

Centeno, 38 and a leading rider at Tampa Bay Downs for several seasons, has been impressive at the Meadowlands this fall. A terrific rider on the turf, Centeno also may yet find himself in demand nationwide with any further improvement.

Sellers, 42 and a winner of more than 4,000 races, came out of 4 1/2 years of retirement from a severe knee injury to resume his career in June. Fact is, he has won with more than 20 percent of his mounts through nearly five months in Louisiana and can jump back into national prominence if he continues to hold that form at the Fair Grounds.

Among the trainers who also should be given a closer look in 2010 are Nicholas Gonzalez, a 22 percent winner in Canada who does well with horses stretching out in distance, and Ramon Preciado, who has been winning at more than 22 percent for a few seasons at Philadelphia Park. Also, McLean Robertson and Hugh Robertson, high-percentage son-father trainers in Illinois, Minnesota, and Tampa who regularly swap their stock depending upon who is going to be where during what season.