02/19/2010 12:00AM

Mena getting his life back in order


NEW ORLEANS - It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for young Peruvian jockey Miguel Mena. On July 30, Mena won the Sanford Stakes aboard Backtalk, a breakthrough graded stakes victory on the big stage at Saratoga. Two mornings later, he slept through a flight that was to take him from New York to West Virginia for the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park. The horse he was supposed to ride, Soul Warrior, won the race for trainer Steve Asmussen. And the whole racing world seemed to know about Mena's misstep.

A month later, Mena was arrested and jailed in Louisville for driving under the influence of alcohol. Mena had to appear before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and show proof he was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. His reputation among horsemen, ascendant the last couple of years, had suffered a serious blow.

But Mena, 23, has put his life and his riding business back together in recent months. He arrived at Fair Grounds in mid-December after a short stint at Turfway Park, and his business was slow at first. But Mena, with help from agent Fred Aime, has steadily picked up momentum, and through Tuesday's racing he had ridden 28 winners at the ongoing meet, 10th-best among Fair Grounds riders. Mena has not missed his morning assignments and is starting to regain the trust of trainers. Tom Amoss, for instance, is putting him on Backtalk when the colt makes his 2010 debut next week at Delta Downs.

"I'm working on things," said Mena, who is personable, proficient on horseback, and has worked hard - and successfully - to learn English since emigrating from Peru. "It's not just something you can do in a couple of days."

Mena, who first rode in the U.S. in 2003, has 861 career wins. His best season by winners was 2007, when he rode 215 horses to victory, but his 184 winners in 2008 banked more earnings, $6.03 million. Mena said his father was a jockey in Peru, his uncle a trainer, but that he and his five siblings didn't grow up with means.

"We were poor," Mena said.

Mena said it was not long after coming to the States that he fell into the habit of partying.

"I was just doing it at the wrong time," Mena said.

Rather than come to work hung over or intoxicated, Mena on occasion would simply not show up. But so far this winter, Mena has kept his appointments to work horses in the morning. He said he attends AA meetings three or four times weekly.

"This happened for me to learn," said Mena. "Right now, yes, I'm still getting things figured out. I'm still working on getting trust."

Backtalk nears season debut

As for Backtalk, Amoss said he will make his first start of the season next Friday in the $75,000 Sportsman's Paradise, a one-mile stakes at Delta Downs.

A flashy 3-year-old son of Smarty Jones, Backtalk hasn't raced since he finished eighth in the Breeders' Futurity on Oct. 10 at Keeneland. That race marked Backtalk's two-turn debut but also was his first start on a synthetic racing surface. Earlier in the year, he won the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs before capturing the Sanford, and Backtalk finished fourth in the Grade 1 Hopeful after suffering through a wide trip.

Backtalk came to Fair Grounds from a Florida training center last month and quickly commenced working here. On Feb. 6, he posted a bullet five-furlong drill in 1:00.40, and last Sunday he went three-quarters in a morning's best 1:12.80.

Silver City puts in blazing work

That gray streak out on the Fair Grounds racetrack not long after Thursday morning's renovation break was Silver City, out doing what he has been doing regularly the last couple of months: Working very, very fast.

Silver City turned in a five-furlong drill Thursday morning in 58.80 seconds, by far the fastest work of the day. By comparison, Rachel Alexandra went five-eighths in 1:00.20, and no other horse worked in under 1:01. That was Silver City's first workout since trainer Bret Calhoun brought him to New Orleans from Sam Houston, where on Feb. 3 he worked five-eighths in 57.60, and on Feb. 10 he went three-quarters in 1:11.20.

Silver City is gearing up for his first start since the Derby Trial last May. There, he finished fifth for the second race in a row, a disappointing end to an early-season 3-year-old campaign that had begun with promise. Silver City won the Dixieland Stakes at Oaklawn and finished second to Old Fashioned in the Southwest before his distance limitations caught up to him. Calhoun said Silver City had surgery to remove a bone chip in his ankle and that he would make the races sometime in March.

Also working Thursday was the Calhoun-trained Euroears, who went a half-mile in a more modest 49 seconds. Jockey Jamie Theriot told Calhoun afterward that Euroears had never worked so well. That's a good sign, since Euroears is coming off a sixth-place finish behind Cash Refund in the Gaudin Stakes here Jan. 23. Calhoun said Euroears would either be pointed for the Duncan Kenner Stakes here in late March or head to Oaklawn to be pointed for the Count Fleet Stakes in April.

* Macho Again, winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster last summer, had his first timed workout of 2010 on Thursday, going an easy three furlongs in 38 seconds. Macho Again, who won the New Orleans Handicap in 2009, has been off since finishing ninth in the Clark Handicap in late November at Churchill Downs.