03/26/2004 12:00AM

Irish apprentice finds new home

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It was a slow recent weekday afternoon at Fair Grounds, and early in the card, in a low-level claiming race, the jockey James Graham was glued to the inside rail. Exactly what he had been practicing - scrape paint as long as possible.

But now, Graham had plenty of horse and no place to go. Ahead of him, the veteran rider Gerard Melancon was a half-path off the rail, baiting Graham into the narrow gap between Melancon's horse and the fence. Once there, Melancon would close the hole; Graham would check sharply and lose.

Apprentice jockeys are supposed to do that. What Graham did was play cat-and-mouse all the way around the far turn, holding his position while keeping his mount happy. And when Melancon's mount drifted out at the top of the stretch, Graham let his horse run, coming through cleanly. He won for fun.

Such scenes have played out with surprising regularity at Fair Grounds. When this meet ends Sunday, Robby Albarado - with an amazing three-month run - will easily capture another riding title. Through Thursday, Albarado had 101 winners, 22 more than Shane Sellers, second in the standings. Down there in sixth, with 43 wins from 340 mounts, was young James Graham. Neither he nor anyone else expected such a showing. With the momentum from Fair Grounds, and his apprentice allowance intact through the end of the summer, Graham is on the way to establishing himself as a journeyman rider in the Midwest.

The 24-year-old Graham will summer in Chicago, but he started last year in Kentucky. And the strides he has made since Thanksgiving, when the Fair Grounds meet began, have turned the head of anyone bothering to pay attention.

"He's gotten stronger and stronger, better and better," said Jeff Thornbury.

Thornbury, based for much of the year in Kentucky, breaks and trains horses. On the side, he has played mentor to Graham, who came to the U.S. after bumping into the low ceiling many young Irish horsemen find at home.

In Ireland, a young man like Graham will be taken on to serve as a groom and exercise rider - a lad - at a trainer's yard. A select few get a shot as an apprentice jockey. But the window for success is narrow and rarely opens wider. Graham said he rose through the ranks of lads for the Irish trainer Patrick Martin, but in three years of riding, he got only 86 mounts.

That Graham made it even that far counts as surprising. He grew up in the Finglas section of Dublin: Think ultra-gritty. Graham says people took care of each other in Finglas - and that there was plenty to look out for.

"It was very tough," Graham said in a recent interview after training hours. "I left home when I was 14. I left me mother and [said] good-bye."

At school, Graham was exerting undue energy getting in every kind of trouble imaginable. A persuasive guidance counselor got through to him with a serious question: "What do you want to do with your life?"

There actually was an answer: horses.

Graham put his head down, and kept it down for several years. He worked the trouble out of his system, and when he took up race-riding last year at Churchill Downs, it was as a mature young man with keen horse sense.

Thornbury, for whom Graham's fianc?e Lisa Caverley works, was the first to offer guidance.

"Jeff's been great," Graham said. "He fathered me into it. He showed me the way of American riders."

At first, Graham rode like he was piloting a three-mile steeplechaser up a steep incline. Gradually, he learned to get low - getting down on your belly, they call it here - and position himself in a race. The internal clock every jockey needs began ticking, and Graham peppered anyone close by with questions.

In the Fair Grounds jockeys' room, Graham was situated next to veteran rider Calvin Borel. Perfect. If Borel is known for anything, it is for holding his spot on the rail at all costs. Graham took that - and more - in.

"I'll tell you what, he's a good kid," Borel said. "He listens. He really wants to get it all right. At first, he wasn't very patient. He wasn't saving much ground. Now, he gets through all the time and gets up."

Graham has gotten plenty of recent practice race riding in the afternoon. He also gets on more horses in the morning than seems humanly possible. Barn after Fair Grounds barn used Graham to work their horses this winter, and that paid off in real mounts.

"He likes what he's doing," said trainer Richie Scherer, for whom Graham put on that recent rail-skimming ride. "He wants to get on 10 in the morning, and he wants to get on 10 at night."

You still can see what Graham might have been like as a kid. He rides at 112 pounds, but he is strong and muscled - like a playground tough. He likes to kid, and bounces with energy. You could imagine all the ingredients brewing serious trouble in a kid.

Instead, they seem to have made a jockey.