12/23/2004 12:00AM

Ignacio has the tools for quick buildup


A new apprentice rider with strong backing has made his way to Turfway Park, and it would not be a great surprise if he began making an immediate impact at the Florence, Ky., track.

Rodolfo Ignacio, 20, has hired Steve Elzey as his agent after being strongly recommended by trainer Dale Romans. Ignacio, a native of Gerrero, Mexico, began his career this fall by riding at East Coast tracks, where he rode 10 winners, including several for trainer Todd Pletcher.

"I've been told by quite a few people that he's a can't-miss prospect," said Elzey, whose jockeys have dominated Turfway in recent winters.

Said Romans: "I've seen tapes of some of his races, and it looks like he has a lot of ability. He's light and he's smart. Turfway in the winter should be a great place for him to start out."

Besides Ignacio, Elzey will continue to work for Dean Sarvis, the leading rider at the current meet. Elzey also had been working for Ramsey Zimmerman, who is second in the standings, but Zimmerman has hired Jimmy McNerney as his new agent.

Ignacio, who came to the United States about five years ago, speaks English well and should have advantages that other new riders would not have, considering Elzey's strong ties with the top stables at Turfway.

"Our goal is to get a good jump on the Eclipse Award for 2005," said Elzey.

Elzey began naming Ignacio on horses last week, but because of weather-related cancellations, the jockey will not able to begin riding here until Sunday at the earliest.

Last month, Elzey split with Rafael Bejarano, who dominated the Kentucky circuit in 2004 before leaving for New York in the wake of the jockey-insurance controversy at Churchill Downs. With Aqueduct dark until Wednesday, Bejarano was supposed to ride at Turfway for several days before returning to New York. With Elzey, Bejarano's mounts earned over $11 million this year.

Meeting stats coming to end

The Turfway holiday meet comes to an official end with the Friday program, after which the winter-spring meet starts Saturday, New Year's Day. It's a rather seamless transition that Turfway makes every year, but for the sake of legal technicalities and official statistics, everything starts over with the new year.

Headed into the final few days of the 2004 holiday meet, the jockey race appears over, with Sarvis holding a 29-19 lead over Zimmerman. But the trainer race is very much up for grabs: entering the final six-day stretch, Wayne Mogge led with six wins over Paul J. McGee and Ralph Martinez (five wins each) and four trainers with four wins each.

Winners hustled to paddock

What is one sure sign that winter weather has returned to Turfway (besides cancellations, which occurred for the first time at the holiday meet Wednesday and Thursday after a heavy snowstorm)?

The winner's circle no longer is used. Winning horses and jockeys return from racing to the paddock, where win photos are quickly snapped and everyone disperses in search of warmth. Track photographer Pat Lang began shooting win photos in the paddock a couple of weeks ago when the weather turned nasty.

Asmussen cutting back

Through the Christmas break, trainer Steve Asmussen still had about 10 horses left at Turfway. But after Coronado Rose was scheduled to run Sunday in the Gowell Stakes, those horses were scheduled to leave for Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where Asmussen will regroup some of his stable.

This is the first time Asmussen has had an appreciable number of starters at Turfway in December - and it may be the only time, at least for a while. Asmussen has said he plans to scale down his huge stable, which this year set a North American record for most wins in a year.

Churchill closing for training

Louisville-based horsemen have been permitted to continue training at Churchill Downs since the fall meet ended Nov. 27, but that convenient arrangement comes to an end Saturday, when Churchill closes and horsemen will have to ship elsewhere. Most of the remaining stables either will shift to the nearby Trackside training facility or leave for Oaklawn Park, where the 2005 meet starts Jan. 21.

Churchill normally reopens for training in early March. The 2005 spring meet starts April 30.