10/02/2003 12:00AM

O'Callaghan got early jump on the game


It's common for a 16-year-old to be granted a driver's license, but rare for someone that young to be accredited to train racehorses.

Take it from Carl O'Callaghan, it can be done.

In 1992, O'Callaghan arrived in New York from his home in County Clare on Ireland's west coast. Looking for a job, he went to the racetrack, which seemed a natural starting point, since he spent much time riding ponies and working with his father, a trainer of point-to-point horses at small tracks in western Ireland.

Trainer Susan Duncan was so impressed with O'Callaghan's knowledge of the care and training of Thoroughbreds that she wanted to hire him as her assistant. The stewards, however, protested.

"The stewards told her I was too young and didn't have enough experience to be an assistant trainer," O'Callaghan recalled. "So she told them, 'Give him the test. If he flunks, don't give him an assistant trainer's license.' "

The details of the exam are a bit fuzzy, but O'Callaghan remembers what mattered most. "I must have passed because they okayed my application, and I became Susan's assistant."

Flash forward to 2003. O'Callaghan, no relation to well-known trainer Niall O'Callaghan, has gone out on his own, running a modest stable at Delaware Park. In addition to working with Duncan, O'Callaghan, 27, served stints honing his training skills with two of New York's most successful horsemen, John Kimmel and Todd Pletcher.

"I've been lucky to work and learn from several of the top trainers in the country," O'Callaghan said. "You can't get a better education than that."

O'Callaghan went out on his own briefly in 1999, but admitted he wasn't quite ready and didn't have the stock to succeed. He went winless in 13 starts at such tracks as Delaware, Belmont, Pimlico, and Penn National.

Last spring, O'Callaghan took out his license again and while he has saddled only one winner so far in 17 starts at Delaware, things are looking up.

Tex McKay won a maiden race at Delaware in early August with a Beyer Speed Figure of 70, then finished sixth and fifth in a pair of stakes. Saturday, Tex McKay is scheduled to run in the $125,000 Texas Stallion Stakes, a six-furlong race for Texas-breds at Retama Park.

Tex McKay's best Beyer Figure is competitive with the two probable favorites in the race, Roundabout Jones, who got a 76 winning the Friendship at Louisiana Downs, and There Goes Rocket, who earned a 67 winning last month's El Joven at Retama.

"My main clients are Larry Riviello, who is involved with Philadelphia Park, and businessman Sam Thorpe. We bought a Scatmandu yearling at a sales that we're hopeful will pan out," O'Callaghan said.

In addition, O'Callaghan has begun training the Delaware Park string of John Zimmerman's stable. Zimmerman has branched out from his Penn National base after winning at a high percentage for several years at the central Pennsylvania track.

After training hours, O'Callaghan has developed quite a following as a disc jockey and karaoke emcee, but horses remain his first love.

"They're amazing creatures, I've been fascinated with them since I was a child," O'Callaghan said. "Like everybody, I'm hoping for that one good horse, but even without the big horse in the barn it's still a joy to work with them every day."

Kelso: Jarf seeks to repeat

Only six older horses entered Saturday's Kelso Handicap, a $100,000 race that will be contested at 1 3/16 miles on the main track, but five of the six have posted a three-digit Beyer Speed Figure in one of their last two starts.

The list of contenders is headed by Jarf, a 7-year-old trained by Allen Iwinski who won last year's Kelso going wire-to-wire. Jarf, 11 for 35 lifetime, is coming off his best effort since last year's Kelso, a win against high-priced optional claimers at Monmouth Park in which he earned a Beyer of 101.

County Be Gold, a deep closer who drew clear in the nine-furlong Owners' Day Handicap, and A Huevo, who got a Beyer of 104 in his second start back after a layoff of nearly four years for trainer Michael Dickinson, are also coming off wins in their most recent start.

The sleeper in the field could be 4-year-old colt M B Sea. He is only 1 for 9 for the year and was last of five most recently, but that race, the Kentucky Cup Classic, has turned out to be a key race with both the winner, Perfect Drift, and third-place finisher Crafty Shaw coming back to win again.