05/09/2008 12:00AM

Mount fee hike seems to be holding

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The attempt by riders in Chicago to raise the base mount fee paid to jockeys here appears to have succeeded, with almost all riders in the colony now receiving $80 payments for riding horses who don't finish third or better. Jockeys whose mounts earn a top-three placing are paid 10 percent of the purse money won by the horse.

That base mount fee represents a $35 increase, and came about despite resistance from some local horsemen, especially the leadership of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Chicago jockeys began actively seeking the increase about a year ago at Arlington. The issue arose again last month at Hawthorne, when racing was delayed on April 25 by almost two hours because of an impasse over the losing-mount fee. Tensions percolated into the start of the Arlington meet, on May 2, but further disruptions to racing so far have been avoided, and the whole situation appears to have calmed.

The amount paid by owners to jockeys who don't earn a cut of the purse is not mandated by law in Illinois, a fact that has complicated negotiations. Frank Kirby, president of the horsemen's association, continues to insist that his organization has no authority to set the rate, a position also taken by the Illinois Racing Board. The racing board, however, asked Arlington stewards to clarify a rule requiring that the fee a jockey will receive be formally set at the time a horse is entered to race.

That is part of the system being adopted at Arlington, one in which individual owners or their representatives, namely trainers, must officially contract jockeys at the higher fee. An owner can refuse to pay, but then must find a rider willing to accept less money, and so far, Chicago jockeys have presented an almost entirely unified front.

"As far as I understand, the jock mount fees are negotiable," Kirby said Friday morning. "If I want to pay a higher one, I would. If I want to pay a lower one, that's up to me."

Once a horseman agrees to pay the higher fee, the horsemen's bookkeeper will make losing-mount payments to jockeys using the new rate. Jockeys were paid for the first two days of the Arlington meet this week, and received disbursements based on the higher losing-mount scale.

During opening week, losing-mount payments also awarded jockeys 2 percent of purse money earned by third- and fourth-place finishers, but riders have agreed to forego those payments.

Thornton plugging along

Tim Thornton came to this Arlington meet having won riding titles at the Hawthorne fall-winter meet of 2007-08, and the Hawthorne winter-spring meet that just ended late last month.

That and a buck-fifty, apparently, will get him a cup of coffee.

Thornton won a race on Thursday's card, but that was just his second victory in 20 mounts so far at Arlington. With Chris Emigh, Eddie Razo, Jesse Campbell, and others back in the Chicago mix, the local colony has grown much more competitive now. And that says nothing about Rene Douglas, who has won the Arlington riding title every time he has summered here, and probably will win another. But do not look for Thornton, who finished the 2007 Arlington season with good momentum, to change his approach.

"It's a change here - a bigger meet and a tougher meet," Thornton said during Thursday's races. "I stand to lose some business, but I have the same attitude I always have: Work hard and try to keep people happy."

Thornton looked like a comer when he first began riding in 2003, but he suffered injuries, seemed to lose his way, and began building up to his current status only last year. During the Arlington meet of 2006, Thornton won only five races from 113 mounts.

"Believe me, I've done horrible before," Thornton said. "I've been hurt, and the last time I came back to Chicago I couldn't win a race."

Thornton won 153 of them from last September to two weeks ago at Hawthorne, and eventually, one assumes, there will be more to come, even at Arlington.

Meier the younger on first mount

Brandon Meier, the son of Chicago veteran Randy Meier, is scheduled to make his debut as a jockey in the fourth race here Sunday. Meier has been exercising horses and working toward a jockey career for about a year, and was nearly set to get started over the winter at Gulfstream when an injury set him back.

The younger Meier has a great chance to get off to a flying start, since his first mount comes for trainer Wayne Catalano, for whom Meier has been working since last summer. Catalano named Meier on a $25,000 claimer named Houseboat, and so far this meet, when Catalano runs, Catalano wins. With two more victories on the Thursday card, Catalano and owner Frank Calabrese have finished first with 8 of 10 Arlington starters.

Road trip likely for Instill

The Illinois-bred 3-year-old Instill, who beat older horses winning a statebred-restricted race last month at Hawthorne, is training at Arlington, but seems likely to hit the road for his next start, trainer John Wainwright said this week.

Instill is among the best Illinois-breds of his generation, and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101 when he won the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap. He has struggled in his open-company tries, but Instill hated the Turfway racing surface when he finished 10th in the John Battaglia Stakes on March 1, and had a tough trip when he ran sixth in the April 5 Illinois Derby.

Wainwright believes Instill is a better horse on dirt than Polytrack, and so is considering the Ohio Derby on May 31 at Thistledown, or the Prairie Mile (a prep for the Iowa Derby) on June 7 at Prairie Meadows.

o Sunday's feature is race 8, an entry-level allowance race for fillies at one mile on turf.