09/08/2004 12:00AM

One man rules in fair game


POMONA, Calif. - It's good to be king, even if your kingdom features corn dogs and Ferris wheels, which is why Martin Pedroza stands tall and proud as the undisputed leader of the pack at the Los Angeles County Fair.

The 39-year-old Pedroza has won a Santa Anita Handicap, a Del Mar Debutante, the Hutcheson, the Spinaway, and the Sorority, while riding such worthy animals as Bluesthestandard, Cavonnier, Sea Cadet, and Mr. Prime Minister.

For 50 weeks a year, though, Pedroza toils among the cast of California's capable supporting players, not quite plugged into the top riding opportunities, but making the most of the chances that come his way.

Then comes Fairplex Park each September, when the marquee names take a holiday and the circuit moves to the five-furlong bullring in Pomona. That is where Pedroza turns into Hurricane Martin, a one-man dynasty who rules the midway.

When Fairplex opens for its 66th racing season on Friday, Pedroza will be going for an unprecedented sixth consecutive riding title. This is significant, since Fairplex has been in business since 1933, and such top-notch riders as Freddie Miller, Ray York, Don Pierce, Ron Hansen, and Victor Espinoza had ample opportunity to run up a string of championships. Other than Pedroza, only David Flores has managed to win five straight.

Pedroza commences business on Friday with a total of 380 Fairplex victories (89 more than second-place Flores), while coming off his best Pomona season ever in 2003. In addition to winning 31 races last year in 17 days, Pedroza tore through the stakes schedule with victories in the Phil D. Shepherd, the E.B. Johnston, the Aprisa, the C.T.B.A. Marian, the Bangles and Beads, and the Black Swan. Only Flores has won more Fairplex stakes, 52-36.

Not bad for a guy who didn't even know what riding the county fair was all about. Pedroza arrived in this country 20 years ago, full of youthful energy and swagger, fresh from the famous Jockey School in Panama, which had produced such Hall of Famers as Laffit Pincay, Jorge Velasquez, and Braulio Baeza. He was a stranger in a strange land, but he was not about to let any sign of weakness slip.

"They asked me if I could ride the bullring," Pedroza said earlier this week at Del Mar. "I said, 'Sure I can,' thinking they were talking about just another big racetrack called the Bullring. Then, when I got to Pomona, I thought, 'Oh my God.' "

It was an honest reaction. In those days, Fairplex Park was a mere half-mile in circumference. Basically, it was like riding in a blender. Eventually, the track was lengthened to five-eighths of a mile by stretching the straightaways, but the diabolical turns remained the same.

Young Pedroza survived by playing a smart game of follow the leader. He took his cues from such established Pomona riders as Hansen, Francisco Mena, and Danny Sorenson.

"These guys knew what they were doing, and it was safe," Pedroza said. "You knew who to get behind out there, and who not to. You learn not to get yourself in a box, and to be ready for what happens next, because it can happen in a hurry."

Every established California veteran has sampled the fair from time to time. The money spends the same. Bill Shoemaker won stakes there, as did Bill Hartack, Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, Alex Solis, Patrick Valenzuela, and even Pincay. But those guys were masters of the quick hit, in and out for a couple of nice paydays before the percentages started to catch up.

Pedroza has been there for the long haul, defying the odds. He has enjoyed a Pomona career that has been relatively disaster-free - touch wood - allowing his clients to rely on his hard-earned experience.

"Look, there is a lot of luck to it," he said. "Mostly, it's about making the turns. I can be following two guys who are going for it on the lead. I'll ease out and watch them, and then if they give me the chance I drop down and cut the corner. But maybe they can make the turn. Then I've got to go the other way, wide. I can't do anything about that."

Compared to a one-mile oval, riding a bullring requires the same level of craft, only more so. On a bullring, mistakes are magnified. And there are no second chances.

"Maybe if you are on much the best horse, you can make one mistake," Pedroza said. "Whatever you do, you've got to make up your mind. Either go in there, or stay out. Don't think about it."

As in any intense experience - combat, marriage, an IRS audit - personality is revealed when riding a bullring. As Pedroza noted, it's a bad place to ride scared.

"Unfortunately, there are some guys who do," he said. "If one of those guys is in front of me, and we hit the turn together, I just pray to God they make that turn. That's why I say you've got to know who to follow out there."

Chances are, they end up following Pedroza.