05/14/2002 11:00PM

James regains his touch at Fairmount

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COLLINSVILLE, Ill. - Anytime a rider suffers a major injury in a nasty spill horsemen and fans alike will be watching when he returns, looking to see if he still has what it takes. Michael James, who broke his right femur in an accident at Fairmount Park last October, he has answered that question and then some.

James began working on an Equicizer in February and was getting on horses by mid-March. But as James noted, "There is nothing like racing action, no matter how much effort you put into getting fit. I felt a little rusty the first few weeks of the meet and my timing was off. But things have begun to come together pretty well since then."

James has been rolling along since those first few weeks and after riding five winners from eight mounts last Sunday it is safe to say he is all the way back.

The five-win day puts James in third place in the standings with 22 wins, just two off Vicente Flores, who is in second with 24. Tommy Pompell is in command of the jockeys' race with 43 wins.

* Fairmount has never been know as a hotbed for young riding talent or as a "bug-friendly" track in general. But this year is the exception, as for the first time in memory a three-way race for top apprentice honors is heating up.

Heather Irion leads the way at 13 wins, and Jesse Wheat Jr. is right behind with 12. Argelio "Gino" Velasquez has seven wins and has been knocking on the door with 15 seconds. He is backed by several strong stables and could get hot at any time and make the situation even more interesting.

* Trainer Kim Hammond saddled three consecutive winners on Tuesday afternoon's card. In the second race she sent out Gallant Beau ($3.60). She came right back to take the third with Nonobaby ($5.20), and then completed the hat trick with Lucky Pioneer ($7.20) in the fourth. Hammond is currently third in the Fairmount trainer standings with 14 wins from just 64 starters.