02/14/2003 12:00AM

Lumpkins eyes another challenge

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Jason Lumpkins is keenly aware that many people in the racing industry aren't putting much stock in what he has accomplished his winter at Turfway Park.

"They're all saying, 'Wait until Keeneland and Churchill Downs,'" Lumpkins said Thursday at Turfway. "That's when the big test will come."

Until then, Lumpkins will have to be satisfied with making a shambles of the jockey race at Turfway. Since Jan. 1, he has ridden 67 winners, the most of any jockey in North America. He already has ridden five winners on five different programs, something that no jockey has ever done at Turfway.

"Sometimes I just shake my head when I cross the wire in front," said Lumpkins, 32. "The things that have been happening, they're amazing."

That Lumpkins is enjoying such smashing success at Turfway should come as no major surprise. Since leaving Maryland following his apprentice year of 1988, he has been a top rider wherever he has gone. He was a leading rider on numerous occasions at Mountaineer and Thistledown, and he gave perennial kingpin Russell Baze perhaps his toughest competition in 20 years during his nearly three years of riding on the northern California circuit.

Then, last fall, he and his wife, Dawn, agreed that they and their two teenaged children had had enough of the California lifestyle. "California was awesome, and I made some memories that will last the rest of my life," said Lumpkins. "But the traffic and the cost of living were just too much, and we thought the pace of life was too fast for the kids."

So they bought a 165-acre farm near the rural town of Campbellsburg, Ky., located just off Interstate 71 some 50 minutes northeast of Churchill and 50 minutes southwest of Turfway. "There's still a lot of driving, but at least there's no traffic," said Lumpkins.

Lumpkins began riding regularly in Kentucky at the Turfway holiday meet in December. He got off to a decent start, but did not really get rolling until 2003. Since then, he has absolutely dominated.

"I want to be a Kentucky rider," said Lumpkins, whose agent is Steve Elzey. "Obviously I've made a commitment to staying here. What we've done so far is really good. We wanted to get established in Kentucky with trainers and owners so that it will help when Keeneland and Churchill come around."

Lumpkins said he hopes the connections he made with trainers such as Bobby Frankel and Richard Mandella, both of whom periodically employed him when shipping horses north from their Southern California bases, will be productive when they run horses in Kentucky.

"Hopefully a lot of the trainers who run at the bigger tracks will already know what I can do," he said. "The racing world has gotten smaller with simulcasting, so hopefully they already know about me."

Lumpkins, who posted his 2,000th career win on Jan. 31, already has become an accepted member of the Turfway colony. "He's a great guy," said Tony D'Amico, who has won four Turfway riding titles. "If he wins one or he wins five, you wouldn't be able to tell. He's a complete professional."

Yet the surroundings and circumstances will change dramatically when racing on the circuit moves April 5 to Keeneland, where Hall of Fame jockeys such as Jerry Bailey and Pat Day ride on a daily basis.

"It's a super-great cast of riders," said Lumpkins. "But they can't ride 'em all. I've always carried high numbers my whole career, so I'd like to think I'll still be competitive when all those top riders get back to Kentucky."

Riverboats still taking away business

Maintaining a trend that dates to 1995, when the first of several riverboat casinos in neighboring Indiana became operational, business at Turfway is down. Since Jan. 1, ontrack handle is down 5 to 7 percent from corresponding dates last year, said track president Bob Elliston, while in-state simulcast outlets are down more than 10 percent. Out-of-state handle has been about the same as last year.

What's worse, the one thing that Turfway officials long have maintained they need desperately - ontrack slots to compete with the Indiana boats - appears a dead issue in the Kentucky legislature for at least another year.

"We're hanging on, doing the best we can," Elliston said. "Our ontrack business is down partly because of the weather. We've had remarkably poor luck, with only two programs being run with the temperature over 36 degrees. That makes it tough on fans."

One bright spot has been field size, which is averaging more than nine horses per race. At the holiday meet in December, "we averaged 10 horses, which is kind of amazing when you think about it," Elliston said. "So at least we're giving horseplayers one of the things they always ask for, and that's full fields."

* A bobbleheaded replica of Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen will be distributed to the first 7,000 fans on March 22, Lane's End Spiral Stakes Day.

* Several Turfway officials went on recruiting trips in recent weeks to solicit nominations to the $500,000 Spiral. Racing official Tyler Picklesimer, who traveled to New Orleans, said Thursday that he expects the number of nominations to be roughly equal to last year, when 109 horses were nominated to the Spiral.