02/14/2009 1:00AM

Lopez glad to be back riding


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Jockey James Lopez won his first graded race since 2002 in Saturday's Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. For Lopez, riding and winning on a regular basis is something he sorely missed when he spent almost two years away from racing.

Lopez, 31, admitted that was one of the toughest periods of his life.

After winning more than 600 races between 1999 and 2003 and averaging 128 winners per year, including winning 147 races in 2002, Lopez slumped due to time off from injuries and took off almost all of 2005, winning just six races that year, and all of 2006.

"I had suffered a series of injuries, the last being serious fractures and damage to my shoulder several years back," he said. "There was several surgeries, long rehab periods, and I also had issues to deal with at home that made things difficult. I was basically out of the business for quite a while, and I can't tell you how much I missed it."

After winning just 20 races in 2007 while riding primarily at Turfway Park and Ellis Park, Lopez came back last summer at Colonial Downs with agent Mark Mace, who had handled the rider's engagements previously, and had a good meeting there. Lopez got off to a good start here, and while he's not challenging for leading rider, he's enjoying himself.

"There's nothing like the thrill of competition and being back at the track," Lopez said. "It's like a whole different world."

Rosemary Homeister Jr., whose agent also is Mace, also left the track to try other endeavors only to return better than ever. Homeister retired several years ago to work in the real estate business, but the lure of the track brought her back and she recently won her 2,000th career race. She ranks second in the rider standings behind Daniel Centeno with 43 wins.

Luhr succeeds in calming down Babo

Working to develop a horse's physical skills is one thing, Spending the time necessary to overcome a Thoroughbred's mental and emotional quirks is something altogether different.

Many outstanding horsemen have been perplexed in their efforts to take a neurotic, nervous horse and make him happy and able to concentrate on running and winning.

That's why the story of Babo, the "psycho" horse, is so gratifying. Babo rallied from last on Thursday to run down the leaders in the final strides and capture a starter allowance route. The win was a culmination of many hours of hands-on encouragement and unorthodox mental therapy on the part of owner-trainer Julie Luhr and her barn staff.

After the horse confused and frustrated others, Luhr purchased Babo for a modest sum with the thought that if he didn't pan out on the flat he would make a decent jumper. A stall-walking, nervous, and neurotic sort who used to jump at the slightest motion or noise, and an insomniac who rarely rested, Babo was a work in progress for Luhr, Peggy McVey, Henry Hemmerick, and the others in the Luhr barn last summer and fall.

Long stints in a turn-out pen where Babo could roll about, watch activities around him, and frolic, along with a lot of chats and peppermint treats, slowly but surely began to work as he learned to relax.

"We joke that he must have been hit by lightning as a youngster," Luhr said with a chuckle after Babo's win. "He's like the problem child I never had, but seriously it's very gratifying to see him become a happier and more relaxed individual. He's still not a model of stability, but he's come a long way since we got him."

Babo was the first winner of the meeting for Luhr and must have been a good luck charm for the stable because she sent out Premier Take to win the opener on Saturday's card.