08/31/2002 12:00AM

McKee nears Cauthen's mark

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CINCINNATI - Like Steve Cauthen before him, John McKee is a local boy dominating the River Downs standings as a young apprentice.

The similarities don't go much farther than that, since McKee, 21, obviously has a long way to go before he attains the kind of fame and fortune that Cauthen found in his Hall of Fame career.

But McKee is off to one heck of a start. As the final three-day stretch of the River Downs meet began Saturday, McKee needed just three more winners to surpass Cauthen's 26-year-old record for wins by an apprentice at River. Cauthen, a native of nearby Walton, Ky., rode 109 winners here in 1976.

"I've never met him, but I've heard a lot about him," said McKee. "If I break his record, that's fine, but I'm not really thinking about it."

McKee is a native of Hamersville, a small Ohio town some 35 miles east of Cincinnati. His father, David McKee, is a former jockey who counseled his son to progress slowly before becoming a jockey.

"I got my high school diploma, then went to work on Poplar Creek Farm, mucking stalls and walking hots," said McKee, a natural lightweight who weighs 95 pounds and has been given the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "Heavy" by local trainer John Bourke. "I learned from the ground up before I started getting on horses. I'm pretty happy with how things have worked out."

McKee, who loses his apprenticeship next June, said he plans to ride this fall at Turfway Park, Keeneland, and Churchill Downs.

McKee's business is handled by agent Eddie Campbell, who also was Cauthen's agent in 1976. Campbell said he recently ran into Myra Cauthen, Steve's mother, who immediately began ribbing him.

"She said, 'Hmmph, you're going to break my son's record, are you, you bum.' " said Campbell. "We both got a laugh out of it."

Bigger and better things

Officials at River Downs enjoy seeing one of their so-called alums go on and accomplish big things. Items such as "I like Cradle winner Harlan's Holiday" bumper stickers are easily found around here.

Easily the most worthy candidate to use Monday's Cradle as a springboard for future major events is Lone Star Sky, who was supplemented to the race.

"We could've waited for a different spot, but the purse money is good, and we wanted to see how he would handle the two turns," said trainer Tom Amoss. "After this, we'll probably go on and try tougher company, because everybody wants to find out what they've got."

Amoss said he and owner Buddy New are undecided about a next race, which will be a final prep for the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Chip off the old block?

If any colt is to beat Lone Star Sky, it might be Christmas Away, who also was supplemented to the Cradle. Christmas Away, a Skip Away colt trained by Pat Byrne, won a July 28 maiden race at Arlington Park in his only career start.

"He can run all day long," said Byrne. "We actually wanted to run him in the Cradle prep, but he came down with a little lung infection so we had to scratch."

Byrne said Christmas Away, owned by Carl Bowling and Charles Thompson, closely resembles his sire both in looks and gait, "with that kind of high knee action that Skip Away had. Both Rene Douglas and Shane Sellers have told me they believe he's going to be a top 3-year-old, so we're excited about him."

* One person who was conspicuous by his absence here this weekend was veteran River Downs publicity director and "Regular Guy Handicapping Show" host John Engelhardt, whose upbeat outlook long has made him a favorite with local fans.

Engelhardt was in upstate New York for the funeral of his mother, who died suddenly Thursday. Englehardt, a Syracuse native, also lost his father less than two years ago.