12/07/2001 12:00AM

Lopez finds himself at top of the charts

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Successful jockeys generally have outstanding physical attributes, such as agile hands, strong legs, terrific balance, and keen vision.

Jockey Jimmy Lopez has been blessed with all of those, along with another outstanding attribute: good ears.

"Being able to listen and put what you've heard into into your riding, that's a big thing," said Lopez.

For Lopez, who turns 24 next month, years of listening and hard work are paying off handsomely. Less than six years into a career that started inauspiciously at Retama Park, Lopez has become the leading rider at the current holiday meet at Turfway Park.

"I didn't do any good there," he said of his March 1996 start at Retama.

Born in San Antonio but raised mostly around Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds, where his father, Joe, worked as a jockey and exercise rider, Lopez is well aware of the ups and downs of being a jockey. His slow start in Texas eventually brought him to the Kentucky circuit, where he was a moderate success until losing his apprenticeship in 1997. After struggling for nearly a year, he left for Southwest tracks, finally catching a break when trainer Cole Norman began using him extensively.

Lopez finished third in the standings at the 1998 Oaklawn meet, then led all riders at Louisiana Downs that summer. "Cole jump-started my career," said Lopez.

Last year, Lopez returned to Kentucky, where during the spring and fall he generally is overshadowed by such stars as Pat Day, and Robby Albarado. But given a chance, Lopez often proves he is capable, a fact borne out by solid performances at the recent Keeneland and Churchill Downs meets and his current position atop the Turfway standings.

Lopez believes experience has played a large part in his steady rise. This year has been his most productive; through Thursday, his mounts had won 123 races and earned more than $2.6 million.

"You've got to be open-minded," he said. "Older riders know a lot more than you do. Listening to guys like Willie Martinez and Shane Sellers really helped me a lot in my early years. You have to realize that nothing counts more than experience."

Lopez will ride at Turfway through Jan. 5, after which he will go on a six-day honeymoon with his new bride, Kelli. The couple then will go to Oaklawn.

Prather could return by January

Kris Prather, the apprentice who took Turfway by storm last winter, easily winning the riding titles at the holiday and winter-spring meets, is on schedule to return by late January, said agent Steve Elzey.

Prather, who turns 23 on Jan. 9, has been undergoing therapy to repair torn ligaments in her shoulder. The injury, suffered in June and aggravated in August, was the second significant one for the Missoula, Mont., native, who in March suffered knee injuries in a starting-gate incident at Turfway.

"She saw her specialist in Jackson, Miss., last week, and got another good report on the shoulder," said Elzey. "He said she'll probably be able to start getting back on horses by mid-January. Hopefully she'll be riding again soon after that."

Prather recently has been in New Orleans with her friend, jockey-turned-broadcaster Donna Brothers. She will go home to Montana for the holidays before returning to Louisville, Ky., to make final preparations for her return.

D'Amico to ride at Gulfstream

One of Turfway's all-time leading jockeys, Tony D'Amico, will spend a good portion of the winter in south Florida at the Gulfstream meet that begins Jan. 3.

D'Amico, 46, is headed south primarily to ride the three Ken McPeek-trained horses that have developed into potential classics candidates. They are the 2-year-old colts, Repent and Harlan's Holiday, and the 2-year-old filly Take Charge Lady.

T.V. Kegel, agent for D'Amico, said the jockey also will return occasionally to Turfway during the long winter-spring meet to ride in selected stakes and allowance races. Kegel said that D'Amico will ride for McPeek and some other Kentucky trainers at Gulfstream but does not expect to be overwhelmed with business.

"We're basically going down to stay close to those three big horses," said Kegel.

D'Amico long has been a standout during the winter at Turfway, where in 2000 he set a track record (surpassed by Prather this year) with 85 wins. In 1996, he became the first Turfway jockey whose mounts earned over $1 million at a meet.

Rib King dies

Ted Gregory, who was a frequent visitor to Turf-way in the late 1980's and early '90s when his friend Jerry Carroll owned the track, died last week at 78.

Gregory was a well-known figure in the Greater Cincin-nati area because of his ownership of the immensely popular ribs restaurant, Montgomery Inn, an association that earned him the nickname the Rib King. Gregory also dabbled in horse ownership. Quiet Enjoyment, a colt he owned in partnership with Carroll and Wayne Carlisle, won the Florence and John Battaglia Memorial in 1992.

Gregory also was a loyal patron and raced horses at his hometown track, River Downs.

* The free chartered trip to Laughlin, Nev., that Turfway gave away to its biggest players reportedly was a rousing success. About 80 customers and staff were flown on Nov. 28 for a three-day trip to the Harrah's resort and casino in Laughlin as a reward for their patronage.

"We think it was an extremely good loyalty-building exercise for us," said Turfway president Bob Elliston.

Costs for the trip were minimized for Turfway since Harrah's, with Keeneland and Gtech, is one of three ownership partners in the track. "We're probably going to do another trip in April," said Elliston.

* With only about one-third of the horses remaining from the recently ended fall meet, the Churchill Downs backstretch is nearing its usual winter break. All horses must vacate by Dec. 31. Most are transferred to Oaklawn Park or Churchill's winter training annex at the nearby Sports Spectrum. The backstretch normally reopens the first week of March.