11/12/2002 1:00AM

Here's looking at you, Kentucky kid

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If you can make it at Churchill, does that mean you can make it anywhere?

"I try not to worry or think about what's ahead," said John McKee, the high-flying apprentice who announced last week that he will ride at Aqueduct in New York starting Dec. 4. "I never want to get too far ahead of myself."

McKee, 21, has already dominated at lesser tracks, and has made an extremely favorable impression at Churchill Downs, where apprentices historically have struggled. He currently ranks second in the jockey standings and has brought an exciting dimension to the Kentucky circuit: an apprentice with the talent and maturity to challenge his more experienced colleagues.

Moreover, McKee frequently is prompting comparisons to two Hall of Fame jockeys: Steve Cauthen and Pat Day.

The similarities with Cauthen are mostly coincidental. Both grew up in rural towns near Cincinnati - Cauthen in Walton, Ky., and McKee in Hamersville, Ohio. Both Cauthen and McKee spent a great deal of time fine-tuning their skills before accepting any mounts, ensuring they were as prepared as possible to begin their careers.

Both got started in earnest at River Downs, with McKee eclipsing Cauthen's 1976 record for most wins by an apprentice last summer. Both moved on to Churchill Downs in the fall, with McKee likely to break Cauthen's track record of 24 wins by an apprentice.

Both started off with agent Eddie Campbell, although Cauthen began using the legendary Lenny Goodman after leaving for New York in the winter of 1976-77, when his career skyrocketed. McKee is retaining Campbell when he goes to New York next month.

Yet as much as McKee's career has paralleled Cauthen's, the comparisons being made with increasing frequency are between McKee and Day. In large part, that is because McKee is a natural lightweight who stands about 4-foot-9, giving him the same physical build and balance that long have been major factors in Day's phenomenal success. "His weight is distributed so well, it's like they're loose horses he's on," said David Asbury, an Ohio-based trainer, of McKee.

McKee also has developed the sit-still style and patience that long have been Day's trademarks.

"[He] shows a lot of poise for a kid who's only been riding races for six months," said trainer Lynn Whiting, who put McKee on a winner last week.

Day, the Midwest icon who is the only jockey ahead of McKee in the Churchill standings, said he has been very impressed with McKee since they began riding together several weeks ago.

"The boy is open to listening, and his horses are running for him," he said.

Tough place to succeed

McKee rode his first race March 15 at Turfway Park but didn't win until his 18th mount on May 27 at River Downs. He has since won 160 races, while scoring with 20 percent of his mounts, and is the third winningest apprentice in the nation.

Keith Allen, who in 1982-83 was a top apprentice on this circuit, said McKee is proving to be exceptional.

"This isn't a haven for bugboys, like New York in the winter or Maryland anytime," said Allen. "You look at how tough it's been for bugs in Kentucky through the years, and it makes you appreciate how he's doing."

Longtime Churchill publicist Tony Terry said he and his staff have been unable to find a Churchill meet won by an apprentice. Even in 1976, when Cauthen had 24 wins, the leader was eventual Hall of Famer Don Brumfield with 29.

Although McKee's father, David, was a former jockey and backstretch worker, the son's path to stardom began at a retail superstore in a rural area some 25 miles east of Cincinnati, near where he grew up. Having graduated from Western Brown High School in Mt. Orab, McKee, 18 at the time, was stocking shelves at Bigg's when a former classmate, Logan Asbury, told him that he was in the wrong line of work.

"My youngest son Logan told him he needed to come work for me," said David Asbury, who oversees Poplar Creek Farm in Bethel, Ohio.

McKee did, and from the first day, Asbury believed he was seeing something special.

"John maybe had been on a pony before, but when he got here, he sure was green," recalled Asbury, 47. "He didn't know which foot to put up first."

But it did not take long for McKee to progress. As he learned from the bottom up, mucking stalls and attending to mundane barn chores, he also got his chance to begin riding, starting with some Arabian racehorses stabled at Poplar Creek.

"I could tell from the first horse he got on that he was going to be good," said Asbury. "Plus, he worked real hard and was real dedicated."

But, at least as much as perseverance, natural ability also is required to become a successful jockey. McKee, it seems, is making the most of both gifts. He earned riding titles at River Downs in the summer and at Turfway Park in September and now has his sights on more ambitious goals. After Churchill, he plans to ride at Aqueduct until returning for the Keeneland meet in April. His five-pound apprentice allowance does not expire until May.

Riding is his fun

Like many young apprentices, McKee is painfully polite when meeting with owners, trainers, and media, using "Yes, sir," and "No, ma'am" without fail. The initial impression is that he is humorless and not having much fun, but he and others say that is not the case.

"Riding is my fun," said McKee. "What do I do at night? Go home."

"Oh, he's shown quite a sense of humor around us," said Asbury. "But I was always beating it in his head that he had to be respectful when he got to the racetrack. At the same time, he's just a kid around us."

On Monday afternoon in the lounge area of the Churchill jockeys' room, with McKee fresh off a victory in the third race, several older jockeys began kidding around with him.

"Some kind of good, you are," said Patti Cooksey, shaking her head. "M-m-m, something else."

McKee revels in the attention. "I never expected anything like this to be happening to me," he said. "Never dreamed of it."

He said journeymen such as Mark Guidry have gone out of their way to advise him. "He taught me a little something I should be doing, and it's been working," said McKee. With a big grin, he added: "So after we finished in a dead heat [Sunday], he told me, 'That's the last time I'm ever helping you!' "

Start spreading the news

Just beyond the Churchill horizon is New York, where, as Woody Stephens once said, "the buildings get awful tall once you cross the Hudson." Again, McKee said he will not allow himself to think too much about how he will fare - "I want to stay focused on what I'm doing right now" - but people who have been watching him say he figures to do very well.

"I think the world of him," said Bernie Flint, who has employed McKee as much as any Kentucky trainer. "He's just a heck of a rider. If he gets a half a chance in New York, he's going to be fine."

"He had a wealth of opportunity in Ohio, and now he's riding with some truly good riders," said Whiting. "He's getting polished. I personally believe that it takes a good three years to make a rider, but this kid is off to a great start."

"He has a very bright future ahead of him," said Day. "If he keeps focused the way he is now, then I don't see any problems with him going to New York."

McKee figures to finish no better than second to Day at this meet, which ends Nov. 30. But statistics do not tell an entire story. In McKee's case, it is the unlimited potential that he has shown that has so many people so optimistic about his future. They are terribly excited about it - even if, as he insists, he won't let himself be.

"We're all tickled to death for him," said Asbury. "From the first day, he knew what he wanted. It's hard for a kid to do that."