06/05/2003 11:00PM

Jockey McKee no longer a bug boy

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Friday was the first day of the rest of John McKee's career.

Any other day, that platitude wouldn't mean much. But Friday was the first day that McKee was riding without the five-pound apprentice allowance that has partly enabled him to launch a sensational start to a career as a jockey. He is a bug boy no more.

"I've got the first stage over with," said McKee. "Now's the time to keep it going."

After beginning his career in obscurity in March 2002, McKee has posted a number of notable achievements. His final statistics as an apprentice show that his 1,597 mounts won 274 races and earned more than $4.93 million. He won riding titles at River Downs and Turfway Park last year, and, perhaps more important, he earned considerable exposure and respect by riding for several months during the winter meet at Aqueduct in New York.

McKee won four stakes, which, although they were minor ones, is a relatively large number for an apprentice, considering there are no weight concessions for apprentices in stakes races. His win totals at River Downs and at the Churchill Downs fall meet broke apprentice records formerly held by Hall of Famer Steve Cauthen.

And McKee was a finalist in the 2002 Eclipse Award voting for top apprentice, an award that went to Ryan Fogelsonger.

"My time as a bug was great, no doubt," McKee said shortly after winning the third race Thursday at Churchill aboard Right Direction, who wound up being his final winning mount as a bug boy. "I've got a lot of confidence in my riding now. I've learned a lot, and I know I'll keep learning. Now I need the people who've been using me to stick with me."

McKee, a natural lightweight who will turn 22 in August, had just graduated from high school in Hamersville, Ohio, when a friend suggested that his size would be conducive to a career as a jockey. Soon after, he began working for the friend's father, trainer David Asbury, on a Thoroughbred farm, and some two years later, his riding career was off and flying.

Through seven races Friday at Churchill, McKee had finished second on three mounts.

McKee said he and agent Eddie Campbell have not decided whether to move to Arlington Park or Ellis Park when the Churchill meet ends July 6.

Long time between Churchill wins

Vic Kendall has held a trainer's license for 40 years, but it had been about 20 since he last won a race at Churchill.

That is, until Thursday, when On the Tee was up in the final stride to win a $20,000 claiming race for Kendall.

"I've been breeding horses in Indiana, but I'm getting out of it," said Kendall, 66. "I want to get up to maybe six or seven horses."

Kendall, a retired truck driver, said he saddled a winner at Hoosier Park "maybe three years ago" but had not won at Churchill since the early 1980's. "Got busy with other things," he said.

Kendall, in partnership with Mark Lamkin and Rodney Maiden, claimed On the Tee for $15,000 on May 16. On the Tee is the first horse that Lamkin, 33, has ever owned.

"My grandmother lives a mile from here," Lamkin said in the winner's circle. "I walked over here today."

Margolis expanding his Ellis stable

Steve Margolis, the former Stan Hough assistant and an assistant to record-breaking trainer Mark Shuman this winter at Gulfstream Park, is expanding his stable to nearly 20 horses for the Ellis Park summer meet, which begins July 9.

Margolis said he has picked up two clients from the western Kentucky region and will base his entire stable at Ellis. Margolis, who saddled Request for Parole to a fifth-place finish in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, has won with four of 14 starters at Churchill this spring.

Margolis oversaw Shuman's Palm Meadows string for most of the winter in south Florida before rebuilding his own public stable here.

Small streak for Lukas, Overbrook

Overbrook Farm and trainer D. Wayne Lukas were on a minor tear earlier this week, when they won three races in a two-day period.

Lukas sent out back-to-back winners for Overbrook on Wednesday: Country Romance ($15.60) led throughout to win the eighth under Cornelio Velasquez, and Gold Dollar ($8) closed strongly to capture the ninth under Calvin Borel.

Thursday, it was Pat Day riding City Desk ($15.60) in the ninth-race co-feature.

Ipi Tombe breezes with Day aboard

Ipi Tombe, the international superstar who could make her U.S. debut in the next several weeks, breezed over the Churchill turf course Thursday with Day aboard for trainer Elliott Walden. The 5-year-old Zimbabwe-bred mare went five furlongs in 1:01.20.

Also Thursday, Tenpins, nearing his 5-year-old debut, breezed an easy five furlongs in 1:03.80.

Binthebest retired after injury

Binthebest, a 6-year-old gelding who won 5 of 28 starts and earned just over $350,000 for owner Jim Tafel and partners, has been retired after fracturing a sesamoid in a Thursday work at Churchill, said trainer Carl Nafzger.

Nafzger said the injury is not life-threatening and that Binthebest, who raced primarily in sprint stakes, would "make a really nice saddle horse for us or one of the owners. He won't be sold."

Longtime owner Barry Ebert dies

Barry Ebert, a horse owner for the last 20 years, died Tuesday in his hometown of Monrovia, Ind., after a brief illness. He was 62.

Ebert, with his wife, Anita, raced a small stable with Gary Hartlage in Kentucky and Felix Chavez in Ohio. His best horse may have been Ornate, winner of the Pleasant Temper Stakes last fall at Kentucky Downs.

A funeral was scheduled for Saturday in Mooresville, Ind.

o Roxaedit, a winner here three weeks ago, takes the next step up in allowance company for trainer Tom Amoss as a major contender in the Sunday co-feature, a $51,200 sprint carded as the ninth of 10 races.

Also carded Sunday is a $52,500 turf allowance (race 8) in which Foster's Landing, narrowly defeated in his last start here, should take some beating. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.