01/12/2008 1:00AM

Jockey Riggs enjoys breakout meet


STICKNEY, Ill. - Tanner Riggs is nowhere near the top of a tight two-man jockey race as the Hawthorne fall-winter meet draws to a close on Sunday, but other than Tim Thornton, who is battling Chris Emigh for the riding title, no rider in Chicago has had anything close to the sort of breakout meet that Riggs has had at Hawthorne.

Riggs won three races Thursday, taking a tough disqualification from what would have given him four. That brought his win total to 57 for the meet, good for a clear third among Hawthorne riders - and good for more than a quarter of his career total of 218 winners.

Riggs, 18, is almost a walking, breathing cliche. Rural farm boys are supposed to be soft-spoken and polite, and Riggs could hardly be more of either. He grew up on a small farm in South Dakota. His father, Roger, has trained part time and farmed part time, and both of Riggs's parents had other jobs to help the family get by.

Riggs first rode at age 16 at the Fort Pierre fair track in South Dakota, a race meet too minuscule to be sanctioned. He moved on to Nebraska, had some success there, and as an apprentice last summer at Canterbury, won 35 races to finish sixth in the standings. But his Canterbury summer this year was tougher, with just 22 wins from 238 starters, which made his excellent Hawthorne meet all the more surprising.

"I struggled at Canterbury this summer," Riggs said. "This has been an unbelievable meet."

Riggs credited his agent, Nebraska native Randy Curran, for helping him get his foot in the door of many local stables. His obvious ability has done the rest. Riggs sits patiently, has a good feel for pace, and shows no hesitation to take advantage of an often-golden Hawthorne rail. His style looks like that of a much older rider, but then Riggs has been riding horses most of his life.

"Since I was a little kid, we'd race out in the pastures," he said. "I never rode in a stock saddle, always rode bareback, and I think that's helped me."

But Riggs, when he got to the track, was starting from scratch.

"I didn't know anything about the racetrack," he said. "Didn't know what to wear, how to use the whip, how to gallop even."

Riggs said former jockey and current trainer Jordan Oleziak was instrumental in teaching him. And the lessons have stuck. If Riggs, however, has one potential issue, it is size. He stands between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9, and currently tacks about 118 pounds. Of making weight, Riggs said, "Sometimes it can be hard."

But Riggs said he looks to another Great Plains rider, Perry Compton, for inspiration in this regard.

"He's about the same height I am, and he's had a great career, so I look up to him," Riggs said.

When Hawthorne concludes Sunday, Riggs said he's going home to South Dakota for a break, but will be back to ride when racing resumes here in March.

Riding title up for grabs

As for the leading rider race, it hardly could be tighter. On Friday's card, Thornton won four races, and Emigh none, putting Thornton back in the lead by one. Thornton, who came out of nowhere to have an excellent Hawthorne season, and has twice missed time this meet with injuries, is seeking his first riding title.

o The feature on a mishmash of a closing-day card is race 8, an impenetrable six-furlong dash for entry-level Illinois-bred females.