08/26/2004 11:00PM

For now, Bejarano content with Kentucky

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As quite possibly the most promising young jockey in North America today, Rafael Bejarano is often rumored to be leaving the Kentucky circuit.

Bejarano, who leads all jockeys in wins this year, probably will leave Kentucky at some point. It's just not going to happen until next summer, according to the jockey's agent, Steve Elzey.

"We just got everything squared away recently," said Elzey. "Rafael said he is very comfortable here. He wants to ride through the winter at Turfway Park one more time before we make any kind of move."

Bejarano, 22, owns a condominium in Louisville. Since he finished the Churchill Downs spring meet as the leading rider in early July, he has traveled frequently to tracks other than his nominal base of Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., where he currently is the leading rider by far. Bejarano has ridden in California, New York, Chicago, and several other states while continuing to gain positive exposure.

Yet for all the allure of trying to make it big in New York or California, Bejarano is satisfied to follow the advice of more seasoned horsemen who are telling him to just keep doing what he's been doing.

"Nick Zito, Bobby Frankel, and Edgar Prado have all said basically the same thing; that he's a jockey with a serious future," said Elzey. "They say keep winning, keep getting experience, keep getting your name out there. Prado told him he rode in Maryland for eight years before he felt like it was time to move to New York.

"Rafael's got a good head on his shoulders, and he loves what he's doing right now. He's enjoying the traveling and meeting new people. Every day he says, 'Where we riding today, boss?' "

Although purses and national exposure at Turfway fall well short of what can be had during the winter months at Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, and Oaklawn, "the only other place we'd consider is New York," said Elzey. "But he's already told me he wants to stay at Turfway. We're in good with a lot of the top trainers who run there, so who am I to try to talk him out of that?"

Elzey said this is definitely the last Ellis meet for Bejarano. "We'll have a lot of options next summer," said Elzey. "One might be Philadelphia Park because of all the new slots money. But that's way down the road."

Meanwhile, Bejarano will ride only the last three days (Sept. 4-6) of the Ellis meet. He was scheduled to ride Sir Shackleton in the Travers at Saratoga on Saturday, then begin serving a five-day suspension Sunday. The penalty stems from the Churchill meet.

Through Thursday, Bejarano, a native of Peru, had won 327 races, with his mounts earning more than $7.4 million.

Trainer misses out on 'Hannah' bonanza

Trainer Chris Paasch was watching in amazement from Del Mar when one of his 2 year-olds, Sweetnsassy Hannah, lit up the tote board following the fifth race Wednesday at Ellis.

Sweetnsassy Hannah, ridden by Justin Shepherd, won a maiden special weight turf sprint by a neck, returning a whopping $274.80 to win.

"I didn't think she should have been that price at all," said Paasch. "I only know one person who bet: my gallop boy, Shane Willoughby. He'd been telling me for three weeks what a nice filly she is."

Sweetnsassy Hannah returned a huge mutuel despite a nice pedigree - she's by Real Quiet out of the standout racemare Morris Code. She cost $450,000 as a yearling.

Paasch, a former longtime California trainer, has been based primarily in Kentucky for the last several years while returning to Del Mar each summer with a small string. He has mostly struggled in Kentucky.

"Hopefully this will spark the stable," he said.

Ellis officials said the win price does not rank among the highest in the track's 82-year history, although there is no official record of those all-time highs.

* Sweetnsassy Hannah capped an adventurous half-hour Wednesday. In the race before, veteran jockey R.A. "Cowboy" Jones won aboard a gelding named Awtair, touching off the usual boisterous rounds of cheers in recognition of a local legend. Jones, 61, has ridden winners in the last six decades, starting with his first win in 1959. He normally rides in races only at Ellis while making a year-round living as an exercise rider.

* Churchill Downs has laid off two longtime marketing employees, Kevin Marie Nuss and Larry Sinclair, as the company continues to revamp its marketing department. Nuss had been employed at Churchill since 1988, and Sinclair since 1989.