02/28/2008 1:00AM

New guy in town catching on

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ARCADIA, Calif. - With a purse of a million bucks on the line this Saturday, there is plenty of big-game experience to go around. But unless one of the former winners - Alex Solis, David Flores, Victor Espinoza or Martin Pedroza - can get the job done, one of the other 10 jockeys in the mix will be collecting his first Santa Anita Handicap trophy.

Awesome Gem and Flores are the arm's-length morning line favorites at 4-1 - someone had to be - but contention runs rife through the field, suggesting that a new name will step forward to become part of a Handicap history that includes four-time winner John Longden, four-time winner Don Pierce, five-time winner Laffit Pincay, and, gulp, 11-time winner Bill Shoemaker. Oh well, you've got to start somewhere.

So, will it be the freshly minted George Woolf Memorial Award winner Richard Migliore, aboard his Pacific Classic winner Student Council? Will it be reigning Eclipse Award champion Garrett Gomez, riding synthetic specialist Go Between? Or will it be one of the two Hall of Famers in the field - Mike Smith with his old pal Tiago or Russell Baze, in his reunion with a new and exciting version of Monterey Jazz?

There is a decent chance it could be Rafael Bejarano, if Heatseeker runs to his recent training and comes along with another of his relentless closing kicks. In the Native Diver last December he beat Racketeer with ease. In the 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual, he fell short by less than two lengths. And in the paceless San Antonio at nine furlongs, Heatseeker missed catching Well Armed by a head after a dawdling three-quarter split.

Bejarano rode Heatseeker for the first time that day and comes back for more on Saturday, much to the delight of owner Will de Burgh and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Riding his first full Southern California meet, the 25-year-old Peruvian caught and passed Garrett Gomez with a double on Wednesday to top the standings. Bejarano has impressed a broad spectrum of horsemen with his unbridled enthusiasm and ability to win from anywhere under any set of circumstances.

"I've been here three months now and I finally feel like I know the other riders, what they are going to do in a race," Bejarano said at Santa Anita on Thursday, after a full morning's worth of workouts. "I still make mistakes - I know that - but I have been talking a lot to Edgar Prado. He watches the races here, and we talk about what I need to improve, maybe do different."

Anyone with Eclipse Award winner Prado in their corner must be doing something right. But Bejarano wasn't exactly an unknown when he showed up in California, on the urging of Bobby Frankel.

Competing primarily in the Midwest, Bejarano led the nation in winners in 2005 and won Breeders' Cup races in 2005 and 2007, both for Frankel. In one of his handful of previous Santa Anita appearances, he won six races on the program of April 8, 2006. And just for reference, that was Santa Anita Derby day, which means Bejarano was riding against the first team.

Not bad for a former pharmacy student who did not lay eyes on a Thoroughbred racehorse until age 18, when he was in his first year of university studies in Lima, the Peruvian capital. Bejarano was still a wide-eyed kid from the southern Andes town of Arequipa, a long way from home and a little lost, scraping by just to afford his schooling.

"My dad came up to see me, and he said one day, 'Let's go do something,' " Bejarano said. "We came to this stadium - from the back we didn't know what they played there. Football maybe? It was the racetrack.

"You know how you feel when you see something for the first time and fall in love?" he went on. "That's how I felt. I saw these little guys, short guys, on these beautiful horses, racing out there, taking their picture after they win, people laughing and cheering. I began to dream, that maybe someday I could be like that."

Pharmacy's loss soon was racing's gain. Bejarano enrolled in the Peruvian jockey school, run by the formidable ex-jockey Teobaldo Vega, that has produced not only Prado, but Jorge Chavez, Jose Valdivia, and Julio Pezua as well. Obviously a quick study, Bejarano was Peru's leading apprentice in his first season of competition, but he shrugged off any suggestion that he was a natural.

"When you are doing something you love, you can do it," he said. "When I first started getting on horses, I think I fell off every day. Trainers would laugh, 'You're gonna be a jockey?' I would get up and tell them to put me back on a horse."

At a mile and a quarter, a race like the Santa Anita Handicap will hardly raise Bejarano's pulse. He was born and raised at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet, and as a teenager, his sport was marathon running, a lung-opener at any elevation. His proudest moment came in the Peruvian national marathon.

"I finished," he said, grinning at the memory. "I didn't win, but I finished."

Now he wins.