04/04/2003 12:00AM

Newcomer working his way up


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Aqueduct's inner-track meet is the place where a talented apprentice rider can gain recognition. This winter, bug riders John McKee, Luis Castillo, and Luis Chavez held their own but failed to make a big stir.

Enter Pablo Fragoso, who quickly shed his 10-pound allowance by riding five winners in less than two weeks at the main-track meet. Fragoso, 20, rode his first winner, Private Retreat, for trainer Mark Hennig on March 21, the main track's opening day.

Fragoso, who booted home his fifth winner on Thursday, rode Friday's card as a seven-pound apprentice and won the ninth race aboard Marfa's Prospect.

With McKee back in Kentucky and Castillo now a journeyman, Fragoso's only real competition in the apprentice ranks is from Chavez, who will lose his five-pound bug on May 6.

Fragoso came here from Mexico in 1997 to live with his older brother, Arturo, who worked for trainer Richard Schosberg. Pablo Fragoso accompanied his brother to work on several occasions and was immediately drawn to the horses. He later began working as a hotwalker and groom for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who got the teenager a job in South Carolina galloping young horses. When Fragoso returned to New York, he worked as an exercise rider for Todd Pletcher for 2 1/2 years.

He is now employed by Hennig and gallops several of the trainer's Grade 1 stars, including Raging Fever, Summer Colony, and Gygistar. Hennig detected something early in Fragoso that suggested he would successfully make the transition from exercise rider to jockey.

"My dad always told me, 'Keep your eyes and ears open, and shut your mouth,' " Hennig said Friday. "Pablo is great at listening. He always had a great head on his shoulders and great hands. He has come a long way in the last year and a half."

The soft-spoken Fragoso, who had his first mount on Jan. 18 and rode 26 races before his first winner, said, "It's better right now for me to follow instructions from trainers, because they know the horses. I'm learning things in every race that I ride. I'm watching the replays and listening to other riders. Little by little, I'm learning."

Mike Kelly, Fragoso's agent, said no decision has been made as to where Fragoso will ride this summer. Monmouth could be a perfect venue for Fragoso because he wouldn't have to compete with the likes of Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, and Edgar Prado.

"We'll see how it unfolds. Nothing is etched in stone," said Kelly, who managed Robbie Davis's book before the rider was sidelined with a knee injury in the fall.