10/24/2006 11:00PM

One of Thistledown's best home again

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Julio Felix, one of the top jockeys at Thistledown the last decade, is back here after a short hiatus and is just two victories shy of riding his 2,000th career winner.

Felix said he needed a change of scenery after his close friend and fellow rider Michael Rowland died in 2004 from injuries sustained in a spill at Turfway Park.

"After Michael died I lost something," Felix said. "Last year was tough, and I just wanted to get away."

In April he decided to go where he would be among familiar faces, Emerald Downs. His cousin Hector Ventura began riding there after a two-year absence, and former Thistledown riders Scott Saito, who is now the clerk of scales, Kevin Radke, and Kevin Krigger were all based there, as well.

Felix got off to a good start at Emerald and won the first stakes of the meeting, but he said that as time went by he became homesick. "It was a big change," he said. "It wasn't the same. I missed everyone and wanted to come back home."

Felix returned to Cleveland in August to be near his his wife, Greta; daughter, Aliah; and son, Julius Michael Rowland Felix. He has steadily been picking up mounts while riding double duty at Mountaineer Park, an hour and 45 minutes away.

Felix, 39, was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and when he was a few months old his family moved to St.Croix in the Virgin Islands, where he lived for 18 years and began his riding career.

He came to Thistledown in 1992 after riding at Calder and was always among the top five riders. He was Ohio's winningest stakes rider for seven years, between 1996 and 2003, and was Thistledown's winningest rider in 1994, when he had 172 wins, and in 1992, when he had 200.