04/18/2003 12:00AM

Jockeys' room a sea of new faces

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The faces filing into the jockeys' room in Southern California are changing so quickly that issuing nametags may not be a bad idea.

Since the Santa Anita meeting began in late December, jockeys Ryan Barber, Mark Johnston, Chuck Lopez, Tony Lovato, David Nuesch, Wade Rini, and Scotty Ziesing have relocated to California.

Add the recent comeback from injury of journeyman Fernando Valenzuela and the presence of two 16-year-old apprentice jockeys hoping to launch their careers in coming weeks - M.C Baze and Mick Ruis - and it is understandable why racing fans look up from their programs and occasionally say, "Who?"

"I can't keep up with them all," Johnston said.

Barber and Lovato have ridden in California in the past, while the others are newcomers. Rini has since moved back East.

The turnover was partially a result of the retirement in the last year of Hall of Fame jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron, and injuries that have sidelined Hall of Fame jockeys Julie Krone and Laffit Pincay Jr., as well as journeymen Danny Sorenson and Joe Steiner. Pincay may not return from a neck injury suffered on March 1, while Krone, Sorenson, and Steiner are expected back.

The influence the new riders will have in California will be determined during the upcoming Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, which begins on Wednesday. Many of the circuit's established jockeys are traveling off to Triple Crown races and other major stakes during the Hollywood meet.

"If you take the program from the final day at Hollywood Park five years ago and compare it to the last day of this meeting, the top 15 will look very different," said trainer Leonard Duncan.

Ziesing and Lovato scored their first winners of the meeting recently, and Nuesch and Johnston won races on Thursday. Johnston's two winners were his first in California.

The winner of the 1990 Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding apprentice jockey, Johnston had been at Santa Anita since the final week of March.

"Winning these races makes you appreciate things more," he said. "I've been pretty successful and I'm used to winning. Maybe I was a little spoiled."

Barber has ridden in Ohio and the mid-Atlantic states in recent years, and rode in California in 1997 and 1998. Although he had some success during that span, he is best known for an incident at Del Mar in 1997 when he was pushed off his horse by jockey Corey Nakatani when the two were galloping out after a race.

Nakatani was later suspended for six weeks and required to undergo counseling. Barber rode briefly in California after that incident before leaving to ride back East. Barber later filed a lawsuit against Nakatani, but said the case was dropped.

"I never did want to leave," he said one recent morning during workouts.

Barber, 25, said he has spent most of the last year helping his father on the family farm in Ohio. He was not named to ride this weekend, but is hoping for a quick start at Hollywood Park.

"I almost came out last year," he said. "I want to get some owners behind me and I'll be in good shape."

Mullins high on Summer Service

The fastest 3-year-old trained by Jeff Mullins has never raced in a graded stakes, never gone two turns, and never shipped out of California. But if the rapidly improving gelding Summer Service runs to expectations Saturday in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes at Hollywood Park, he could leapfrog into the Triple Crown series along with his more famous stablemate Buddy Gil.

Mullins and owner Richard Englander claimed Summer Service from a $40,000 maiden claiming sprint March 1, and in his first start for Mullins on April 4, the gelding won a maiden $40,000 starter allowance by eight lengths in 1:09.40, earning a 108 Beyer Speed Figure. "He's run the highest Beyer in my barn," Mullins said. "And if he runs good in the Snow Chief, Englander is talking about the Preakness."

Only five 3-year-olds have earned higher Beyers this year than Summer Service, a gelding by Siberian Summer. When Mullins asked jockey Gary Stevens whether he could be rated in the six-furlong sprint, Stevens said, "You can do anything you want with him."

Summer Service will stretch out to 1 1/8 miles in the Snow Chief, and is expected to be part of a modest field, including Chief Planner, Excessive Barb, and Logician. The Snow Chief is the richest race Saturday on Hollywood's $1.2 million Gold Rush card, a 10-race program exclusively for California-breds.

Gill mulls expanding into California

Michael Gill, the New Hampshire-based owner whose aggressive claiming tactics have created controversy in recent months, said this week he is looking to expand his operation into California.

Gill, who said he has a total of 240 to 250 horses, said that no plans have been finalized but he has had conversations recently with California trainer Nick Canani about sending some horses to California.

"It's definitely in the future," Gill said. "I'm not sure how quick. It could be next week. It could be next year.

"If I do [go there], I would start by sending some horses to Nick. I want to expand my stable and get a little more diverse. For the first time, I feel I can be comfortable sending horses to California and feeling confident."

Gill has been unsuccessful in securing stalls at several tracks in the East and recently filed a lawsuit against Delaware Park for barring his horses. He said he has purchased a training center near Delaware Park that will be used as a base.

Gill said that when he does become active in California it will not be for the purpose of raiding the circuit of its competitive claiming horses and then shipping them back East.

"My history is moving in some place and staying," he said. "I would bring more horses in than I would take out.

"I would turn around and claim the horses that beat me. I'd always be buying and always be selling. I'd put them in where I can. To me, it's like a big poker game.

"I do intend to race in California. I want to compete at the highest level."

- additional reporting by Brad Free