11/04/2003 1:00AM

From obscurity to contender

Email

Unless you're among the elite riders whose services are in demand, you can forget about spending the winter at Gulfstream or the spring at Belmont - difficult places for an unproven jockey to find live mounts.

That explains why Richard Monterrey, a 19-year-old apprentice from Venezuela, struggled mightily upon his arrival in the United States.

Through the first 2 1/2 months of 2003, Monterrey competed against the biggest names and best riders on the East Coast and won only 9 of 134 races at Gulfstream. Things didn't get much better when Monterrey moved to Calder Race Course, where he got off to a 4-for-47 start. Then he came north, only to go a combined 2 for 51 riding at Monmouth Park and Belmont.

But in the last six months, Monterrey has found his niche riding in Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia, and his career has blossomed. Through Monday, Monterrey's 154 wins and $2.6 million in purse earnings rank second among apprentices to Florida-based Eddie Castro, who has 176 wins and $2.8 million in earnings. Luis Garcia, who rides the Maryland circuit and at Charles Town, is third with 151 wins and $2 million in purse earnings.

Ryan Fogelsonger, last year's Eclipse Award-winning apprentice, rode 152 winners and his mounts have earned $2.7 million through May 23, when he was elevated to journeyman's status. Technically, Fogelsonger is eligible to win the award again, but that is unlikely to happen.

Just when Monterrey was closing in on Castro and looking like a top Eclipse Award candidate, he went down in a spill at Charles Town on Oct. 29. Monterrey sustained a bruised kidney, an injury that is expected to sideline him for two weeks. The lost time could cost him whatever chance he had of overtaking Castro, and with Eclipse ballots to be distributed just before Thanksgiving, the timing of the injury is unfortunate.

Since mid-September, Monterrey has been based in Maryland, where he rides Wednesday through Sunday.

"I am here because I want to win the Eclipse Award," said Monterrey, who stands 5-foot-4 and weighs 107 pounds. "Everyone tells me I have to be in Maryland because they give opportunities to young riders."

Historically, Maryland has been fertile ground for top apprentices. In the past 29 years, nine apprentice riders based in Maryland have won an Eclipse, including Chris McCarron (1974), Kent Desormeaux (1987), Mike Luzzi (1989), and more recently, Jeremy Rose (2001) and Fogelsonger.

Monterrey also competes at Delaware Park, where he was based for most of the summer, and goes to Charles Town to ride at night.

Still learning to master the English language, Monterrey admits his decision to break in at Gulfstream was a tough experience, but he doesn't regret it.

"Riding against good riders is my dream because I want to be a good rider," Monterrey said. "My father rode in Venezuela and was a pretty good rider there. He is my inspiration. I want to be a good rider like him. I want to be the best."

Monterrey's stint in Florida included a brief stretch of success. From mid-March, when most of the better riders departed Florida, until Gulfstream closed in April, Monterrey rode 17 winners from 107 mounts, a more than respectable 16 percent-clip.

When the Gulfstream meet ended, Monterrey was torn between staying in Florida or moving north. Business dictated his decision. Thanks to the encouragement of trainers Tony Pecoraro and Allen Iwinski, who promised Monterrey mounts, Monterrey relocated.

Initially, Monterrey tried riding mainly in New Jersey and New York, coming to Delaware only on Mondays and Tuesdays. After enjoying success on a limited basis, Monterrey soon decided to make Delaware his home base.

"I did well here because Tony Pecoraro put me on a lot of his horses and I got a lot of help from others like Joe Orseno, Marcial Narravo, Mike Matz, Allen Iwinski, Dale Capuano, and Mike Pino," he said.

Monterrey has done well enough to rank seventh in the jockey standings at Delaware with 63 wins, 73 seconds, and 46 thirds from 356 mounts. He finished fourth in the standings at Pimlico's fall meet by winning 16 of 71 races (22 percent) with a return on investment of $2.45 for each $2 wagered to win on his mounts. At the current Laurel meet, Monterrey has ridden 11 winners in 79 mounts, good for ninth in the standings. He has also picked up 33 winners in 210 mounts at Charles Town.

Capuano, a perennial top trainer in Maryland, said Monterrey does his best riding aboard a horse with early speed. "He gets out of the gate good," Capuano said. "Speed horses stay running for him pretty well."

Trainer Mike Pino said Monterrey already shows signs of maturity.

"When you watch him on a horse, he doesn't look like an apprentice," said Pino, who has used Monterrey only 14 times but earned six wins and four seconds with him. "He doesn't rush a horse. He's patient and finishes like an older rider. I don't think he's a flash in the pan. I think he'll be a real good journeyman."

Delaware's leading jockey, Ramon Dominguez, can see similarities between himself and Monterrey. Both are natives of Venezuela and both used the mid-Atlantic region to launch their careers.

"I see a little of myself at that point in my career, when I look at him now," Dominguez said. "We both come from similar backgrounds. When he first came here, it seemed like he was a little uptight. Over time he has become more relaxed and more comfortable with himself. I think he has a big future."