01/09/2009 1:00AM

Lebron back on top after New York experiment

Email

Jockey Victor Lebron won three races from 38 mounts during the time he rode over the Aqueduct inner track this winter. Thursday at Turfway, he surpassed that total in a single evening, winning four races from six mounts.

The 24-year-old jockey, whose family resides in the Florence, Ky., area near Turfway, is back where he calls home, and back winning races. So much so that Lebron entered Friday night's card at Turfway as the leading rider of the winter/spring meet, which began Jan. 1, following the holiday meet in December.

Leading a colony of riders is a position to which he has grown accustomed, having won the Turfway winter/spring title in 2008, as well as the 2007 Indiana Downs and 2008 Ellis Park meet titles. And with a 12-7 advantage in wins over his next closest pursuer in the current race at Turfway, he has the benefit of momentum, resulting in horsemen seeking him out to ride their better horses.

That's something that failed to materialize at Aqueduct.

"Most of the business is all tied up," said Lebron. "So when you're used to winning races, three or four a day, and then go to one a month, it's a little tough."

He doesn't regret trying to ride in the Big Apple, noting that he picked up new skills by being a part of what he described as a talented jockey colony. He said he intended to stick out the winter there, but changed his mind in part after winning 10 races at Turfway in mid- to late December when there was no racing at Aqueduct.

At Turfway, where both Kentucky and Indiana horsemen are familiar with him, he gets more opportunities.

That includes riding often for Mike Maker, the leading trainer at Turfway holiday meet and at Churchill Downs in the fall.

One of Lebron's four wins Thursday evening came aboard the Maker-trained Nolan's Cat, who got up in the final strides to win a $12,500 claiming race, the eighth on the card. That victory improved Maker and Lebron's win percentage together to 39 percent in 2008-09. At Turfway over that same time period, their success rate together is 43 percent.

Maker calls Lebron a strong finisher. If that proves true of his meet, and not just his individual race-riding skills, the jockey could be poised for a better winter/spring meet at Turfway than he had last year.

Unspoken Word should be up front

Maker and Lebron team up again Sunday in the featured seventh race, a $28,000 third-level allowance with a $50,000 claiming condition, when Maker starts stakes winner Unspoken Word.

A 5-year-old daughter of Catienus owned by Twin Creeks Farm, Unspoken Word comes off a poor showing in her lone start at Turfway, a 10th-place finish in the Nov. 30 Holiday Inaugural. Unlike in that race, she appears to have the speed to enjoy a favorable trip on or near the lead Sunday, and stretching out from six furlongs to a mile should benefit her.

Things simply didn't go Unspoken Word's way after she fell back to fifth early in the Holiday Inaugural.

"She wasn't fond of the kickback," Maker said.

A mare that ran second behind Dearest Trickski in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita in December 2007, Unspoken Word looms as the class of the field.

Of her six opponents, her greatest adversary appears to be Lauren's Tizzy, who ran third in the My Charmer Stakes at Turfway Dec. 6.

Ninth runner suffers fatal breakdown

Thursday's card was marred by the fatal breakdown of Longley in race 8. The 5-year-old Seeking the Gold horse was pulled up by Orlando Mojica entering the backstretch of the 1 1/16-mile race for $12,500 claimers after beginning to advance following an awkward start.

Longley had to be put down after fracturing both sesamoids.

"I'm in a funk right now," trainer Jimmy Baker said Friday morning.

Longley's breakdown comes after a 21-day holiday meet that saw eight horses suffer catastrophic injuries, double the amount from the 2007 meet. Those injuries caused racing and track officials to examine Turfway's synthetic Polytrack surface.

As a result, the track also lifted its ban on rear toe-grab shoes.

Baker said the Polytrack surface was "too deep, too loose" Thursday evening, causing horses to work too hard.

Longley, a stakes winner in 2007, was dropping to his lowest claiming level in Thursday's race, but Baker called him sound.

"He was getting old, and I was putting him where he could win," he said.

Although critical of the track, Baker acknowledged that his horse hopped at the start and quickly tried to catch up to the field, which could have put added pressure on his legs.

Meanwhile, track officials continue to monitor the surface, while also examining other factors that may have contributed to the breakdowns.

"The feedback we've gotten from the vet community, the jockeys, and the horsemen training on it is that it is a safe surface," Turfway president Bob Elliston said.