12/10/2003 1:00AM

Meet America's 31-year-old female apprentice

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Crista Talbot made a gutsy career move this fall, when, at 31, she decided to enter a world dominated by teenagers and become an apprentice jockey. She rode her first winner Aug. 30, aboard the Danny Pish-trained Golden John, and is one of a handful of apprentices based this winter at Sam Houston Race Park.

Amanda Crandall, 19, is the current leading apprentice at the track, which has been a launching pad for such young riders as Jeremy Beasley. Hot on Crandall's heels in the standings is Quincy Hamilton, the 19-year-old son of one of Sam Houston's leading Quarter Horse riders, John Hamilton.

Quincy Hamilton, who won his first race last month, has won four races to Crandall's five this meet, and on Dec. 4 scored with $119 winner Stroganof, which triggered a track-record pick four payoff of $15,634.

Talbot gave up a thriving business to become a jockey. She grew up in the Houston area, and during the 1990's owned and operated arguably the most successful hunter-jumper show horse barn in the region. She trained a stable of 25 show horses, and taught many children and beginner adults the sport.

But Talbot wanted more. She had a desire to take her show-horse business to another level in 1999, but when most of her clients opted not to invest in better stock, she decided to check out Sam Houston.

"I always wanted to ride, ever since I was a kid," she said. "But I was involved with show horses, so the racetrack never presented an opportunity to me."

Talbot liked what she saw. She went to work galloping horses for a number of trainers in the mornings, but at night continued to teach students at her own stable. Still, it wasn't long before she closed her business to devote her full attention to racing.

She met and married Shawn Talbot, a former assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen, and he became her agent this fall when she decided to launch her riding career.

"This year I thought, 'I'm 31. I'm not getting any younger. I'm going to try it,'" said Talbot. "It was a total career change. It's very different.

"When you show hunter-jumpers, you're in the ring by yourself. When you're out there in a race, you've got so many different elements. You've got other riders, other horses.

"It's a lot harder on your body than riding show horses," Talbot added. "Even after four years of galloping, the first race I rode, I was like blown away at how physical it is compared to working horses."

Talbot credits her husband and a number of trainers for helping her make it to the races. Among those she still gallops for in the mornings is trainer Danny Ogus.

"We met two years ago, when Shawn was an assistant to Steve Asmussen and I was stabled in that barn," said Ogus. "She gets along good with all my horses. She's got good hands on a horse."

Crista Talbot views her new career the same way she did the hunter jumper business - as a challenge.

"I have something to prove to myself," she said. "I would like to be a better race rider for myself; to prove to myself I can do it."