07/20/2008 11:00PM

Nice guy Garcia building on success

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - If nice guys finish last, then what is Alan Garcia doing as New York's leading rider this year?

When horsemen extol the virtues of the 22-year-old Garcia, they talk about his hands, patience, sense of pace, and ability to finish. Invariably, however, they always mention what a good guy he is.

"He's a very positive and happy kid; he was raised well, he's a good person," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, for whom Garcia has won 83 races, including 14 graded stakes, since 2006. "He rides aggressively and he rides a very good race."

And Garcia is winning some very nice races. In the last 19 months, Garcia has won 22 graded stakes, including the Belmont Stakes on Da' Tara, the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Lahudood, and the Met Mile on Divine Park. Through Sunday, Garcia ranked seventh nationally in purse money won with $7,804,129 and is 19th in the country in wins with 135. His 22 stakes wins are just three shy of his total for last year, and his 11 graded stakes victories equal his output from 2007.

"He's got very good hands, never fights his horses, he's got a good sense of pace, plus he's a nice guy," said trainer Christophe Clement, who has Garcia named on two horses Wednesday. "All this combined makes him great. You just hope he has the discipline and support around him to have a successful career."

Garcia's 131 victories on the New York Racing Association circuit lead all riders heading into Wednesday's opening of the six-week Saratoga season. Garcia is named to ride in nine of Wednesday's 10 races. With no clear-cut favorite for this year's Saratoga riding title and with the backing of McLaughlin, Clement, Linda Rice, and Shug McGaughey, Garcia has to be considered a real threat to win the jockey title.

"I think about it, but I then want to forget about it," said Garcia, who added he just wants to stay focused on his day-to-day routine.

Garcia, the second youngest of seven children, was born in Peru, where his father and grandfather were both jockeys. His father, Dagoberto, is now an exercise rider for Gary Contessa and even rode in a race earlier this year at Belmont.

At 14, Alan Garcia started attending jockey school in Peru, and he began riding in 2002. He won 48 races in Peru before coming to the United States in the fall 2003 where he was an apprentice rider for six months.

"I was born to be a jockey," Garcia said. "All the time I was at the racetrack; a lot of people know me around the horses. It was my future to be a jockey."

At first, Garcia would spend most of the year in New Jersey while riding Aqueduct's inner track meet in the winter. In 2005-06, Garcia hooked up with McLaughlin, one of New York's leading trainers.

"I give the credit to Art Magnuson," McLaughlin said, referring to his assistant. "He started using [Garcia], really liked him, and just hit it off real well with him, and I'm a big believer when your people are happy and things are going well, don't change."

There have been a number of talented young riders who have had instant success in New York, but then faded away. Norberto Arroyo Jr., the leading rider on this circuit in 2000, and Fernando Jara, who won the Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic for McLaughlin in 2006, are two examples.

Tony Micallef, Garcia's agent, has used them as motivation to keep Garcia focused.

"I just preached to him every day, keep your head on straight, you can go down as fast as you go up in this business," Micallef said.

Garcia said: "I think that's a good example for a lot of jockeys. I want to keep being the same Alan Garcia - working hard, be nice, smile, not making trouble."

Garcia enjoyed a terrific Belmont meet with 54 wins to finish second in the standings to Eibar Coa. The highlight, of course, was his gate-to-wire upset victory aboard Da' Tara in the Belmont Sakes, the race in which Big Brown was going for the Triple Crown.

Garcia picked up the mount only after his original mount, Tomcito, got hurt. Garcia said he wanted to ride in the Belmont because he wanted to be part of history when Big Brown won the Triple Crown. Garcia said when he got to the quarter pole and was still in front, he began to wonder where Big Brown was.

"When is he going to pass me?" Garcia said were his thoughts approaching the quarter pole. "When I saw the first [infield TV screen], I said, 'Oh my God,' I was five in front. I said, 'I can do it.' I was riding harder the last sixteenth.

"I was so happy past the wire; I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I should cry, turn around, smile, I didn't know," Garcia added. "There were so many emotions."

Garcia will ride Da' Tara in Sunday's Jim Dandy Stakes and then hopefully the $1 million Travers on Aug. 23 as well.

The only downside to Garcia's success is that he can't share it up close and personal with his mother, Consuelo. She remains in Peru, unable to obtain a visa to visit America. The night of the Belmont, Garcia flew home to see her and his six siblings.

"She's been very supportive, she would drive me to jockey school and pick me up," Garcia said. "I want her to enjoy this."