01/11/2008 1:00AM

McKee stays in bid to retain momentum


John McKee considered spending another winter at Oaklawn Park or maybe even Gulfstream Park, but in December, the 26-year-old jockey made a U-turn - just like one of his recent mounts.

Ma's Meatballs, his mount in the third race Wednesday at Turfway Park, "did the strangest thing I've ever had happen to me" as a rider, McKee said. After coming out of post 1 in a two-turn race, the 4-year-old maiden took two tentative steps, then wheeled 180 degrees to his left and jogged straight through the narrow opening between the starting gate and the inner rail, winding up behind the gate.

"He just made this left-hand turn and acted like he knew what he was doing all along," McKee said.

For McKee, the sudden turnaround is somewhat symbolic of the course he plotted for himself this winter. Although he grew up in southern Ohio and first made a name for himself at River Downs, then nearby Turfway, during his apprentice season of 2002, he never had spent a full winter at Turfway in Florence, Ky. Rather than leave sometime during the holiday meet in December, which he has done in the past, he decided to stay put.

"It just seemed like I got a lot of momentum, and Mike Maker said I could ride first call for him if I stayed," said McKee. "A lot of people from Kentucky are using me, and they all run at Keeneland, so if you're doing good, why leave?"

McKee posted career lows in 2007 when he rode 95 winners and his mounts earned $1,769,105. Those numbers are a far cry from the four previous years - from 2003-06 - when his mounts averaged more than $5.3 million a year, and in staying at Turfway he was looking to sustain whatever momentum he could.

McKee rallied to be the leading rider at the 27-day holiday meet that ended Dec. 31, and he said that although he always enjoyed going to Oaklawn, where he was the leading rider in 2004, "it always seemed like I was dead every year when I would come back to Kentucky."

"Maybe this move will help me out because the main thing is to build momentum for the rest of year in Kentucky," he said, referring to the major meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

McKee's agent is Buddy Fife. For most of his career, McKee employed Eddie Campbell as his agent, but Campbell has been ill for more than a year. McKee said he recently spoke to Campbell, who lives near Turfway.

"He has his good days and bad days, but he said he's doing fine," McKee said. "He's a fighter."

Ouzts targets Turfway return

Jockey Perry Ouzts is recovering from arm surgery performed in early November and is hoping to return to action before Turfway ends April 3, according to his longtime agent, Jamie Fowler.

Ouzts became the 22nd jockey in North American racing history to win 5,000 races when he guided Kandinsky to win the first race at River Downs on Aug. 21.

Ouzts, 53, most recently rode at Keeneland on Oct. 27. He is recuperating at his home in nearby Hebron, Ky.

* Journeyman Julio Felix recently joined forces with agent Charlie Wisbey at Turfway and they plan to remain together for their bread-and-butter meet, River Downs, which starts in mid-April. Felix has ridden nearly 2,100 winners in a career dating to 1989.

* The Sunday feature at Turfway is a $24,000 second-level allowance sprint that drew a field of eight 3-year-old fillies. Talk Fast, an impressive winner in her first start after being claimed by David Ross and trainer Speedy Smithwick, looks like a deserving favorite in the eighth of nine Sunday races.