01/21/2010 12:00AM

Poise sets Serpa apart from other apprentices

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - It happens every winter. A bevy of apprentice riders target the Aqueduct inner-track meet, hoping to launch their careers. Some never come. Some come but can't handle the cold, the competition, New York, or all of the above, and they soon vanish.

By the middle of winter, one apprentice usually rises to the top, showing the promise of a future journeyman with staying power. This winter, the cream of New York's apprentice crop is Angel Serpa, a 22-year-old native of Puerto Rico who has vaulted to third place in the jockey standings behind Ramon Dominguez and David Cohen.

In the recent six-day race week that concluded Monday, Serpa won nine races, including a pair of three-win days, giving him 17 victories since Aqueduct's inner track opened Dec. 2. He is beginning to draw rave reviews, including a bold comparison made by veteran trainer John Toscano.

"He reminds me of Steve Cauthen," Toscano said, referring to the then-teen sensation who as an apprentice in 1977 took New York by storm before winning the Triple Crown aboard Affirmed the following year. "Cauthen had that knack of winning every photo. You watch this kid ride, he's in 10 photos, he wins nine. I see a big future for this kid, I really do."

Toscano wasn't far off. Eight of Serpa's 25 victories in New York since Oct. 29 have come by a nose, head, or neck. Five more came by three-quarters of a length.

"The kid's cool," said trainer James Bond, for whom Serpa has ridden three winners. "A lot of apprentices I see leave there running or want to be dead last. They don't have a gauge of timing. The kid does a good job with timing. He sits chilly on a horse, and when a horse comes to him, he's still got some horse left. He doesn't go crazy and start wailing away."

Apprentice riders are nicknamed "bugs" because of the bug-looking asterisk that appears next to their name in the program or overnight. Apprentice riders carry less weight than a journeyman. They start with a 10-pound weight allowance, which drops to seven after winning their fifth race. A rider has their apprenticeship for a year following their fifth win. After their 35th career victory, the weight allowance drops to five pounds.

Though 22, Serpa has not really been doing this very long. In Puerto Rico, he attended the local jockey school, the same one that produced 2009 Eclipse Award-winning apprentice Christian Santiago Reyes and finalist Luis Batista. Serpa, however, could not get into the jockey program because it was filled. Instead, he applied for and received entry into the exercise rider program. He could have applied for the jockey program at the beginning of 2009, but it would have meant putting off his riding career another two years.

Instead, on the advice of an agent friend and jockey Carlos Lopez, Serpa came to Philadelphia Park last spring. He rode his first race May 13, and after losing aboard his first 24 mounts, Serpa picked up his first winner June 13. Serpa struggled at Philadelphia riding five winners from 104 mounts.

At the end of the summer, Lopez suggested Serpa go somewhere else. With a new agent, Al Dellape, Serpa went to Monmouth Park, where he had some success, winning 11 races from 90 mounts in the last month of the meet. He carried that momentum over to the Meadowlands, where he won 20 races from 179 mounts, tied for eighth in the jockey standings.

While riding nights at the Meadowlands, Serpa tried to get his foot in the door in New York. During the Aqueduct main-track meeting, Serpa won eight races but gained valuable experience riding with jockeys such as John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, and Ramon Dominguez.

"Johnny taught me a few things and pointed out a few things that I had to correct," Serpa said through an interpreter. "I'm working on and want to learn to become a little more patient, because I know patience pays off. When you get a little too anxious, it's hard to win that way."

Serpa has shown proficiency riding on the front-end and from off the pace. Two days before guiding San Naa to a front-running score on Jan. 15, Serpa rallied 21-1 longshot Sawtooth Mountain from next to last to a nose win.

The roster of trainers Serpa has won for does not include many of the leading trainers at the meet. Of the 17 trainers for whom Serpa has won, only David Jacobson and Gary Contessa are in the top 10. That may soon change.

"I'm getting some more phone calls," Dellape said. "They're coming to him now that they see he's got some talent.''

Serpa has only limited competition among apprentices in this colony. Jackie Davis was scheduled to lose her apprentice status Jan. 21. However, she was waiting to hear if she could get a few weeks' extension for time missed because of injury.

Abel Lezcano arrived from south Florida last week, and it took him only two mounts to find the winner's circle. His win aboard Telemachus on Sunday was the 35th of his career, meaning he is now a five-pound apprentice.

Joe Musarro, who is 2 for 20 at this meet, has 32 career victories, and Tadious Simpson has recorded all 23 of his career victories at Finger Lakes.

Serpa, who got one vote for the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice of 2009, has his apprentice status until July 13. If a strong winter meet here leads to a solid spring over the main track and then at Belmont, perhaps Serpa could be in the running for leading apprentice of 2010.

"I would love to be able to be mentioned next year for an Eclipse Award," Serpa said. "Unfortunately, I got a late start last year."

These days, Serpa appears to have his timing down pat.