04/16/2002 11:00PM

Prather and Palmer add spice to jockey ranks


AUBURN, Wash. - The 2002 jockey colony at Emerald Downs appears to be the strongest in the track's seven-year history, and two prime reasons for that are newcomers Kris Prather and Gary Palmer.

Prather, a 23-year-old native of Montana, bgan riding in July 2000 and made a huge splash in late 2000 and early 2001, winning riding titles at Turfway Park's holiday and winter-spring meetings. Dominating as no rider had done before at Turfway, Prather broke the old record of 86 wins midway through the winter-spring meeting and led the nation with 110 wins on March 17, when she severely strained both knees in a gate mishap.

"I was out for three months with those injuries, then the first day I came back to the track I got hurt again," she recalled. "A horse I was galloping at Churchill Downs wheeled and pulled my shoulder out of its socket. I actually rode for four days before I had my shoulder X-rayed, and the X-ray showed that I had torn all my ligaments and there was basically nothing holding my arm to my shoulder."

Prather lost another four months recovering from shoulder surgery, but came back to ride early this year at Turfway. Prather then decided to try her luck at Oaklawn Park, but didn't have immediate success (she won with just one of her first 27 mounts) or the financial resources to sustain herself while building her business.

"I went to Mountaineer Park in West Virginia because they had big purses, but the first day I was there my horse flipped in the gate and hurt my knee, and the third day another horse flipped with me and cracked my helmet," she said. "I decided I needed to take time off to get healthy, then try to make a fresh start somewhere else."

Prather came to Emerald on the recommendation of her friend and mentor, former rider Julie Krone, arriving two weeks before opening day.

"I think I made the right choice," Prather said. "The people here are really friendly and helpful, and I love the track. The horsemen here have a basic respect for the animal, and they have been putting me on some really nice horses in the mornings. The key to any rider's success is having good mounts, so I think I've got a good chance here to get things going again."

Prather, who rides at 105 pounds, will have her five-pound apprentice allowance until August.

While Prather came across the country to ride at Emerald, Gary Palmer came from around the world. A 41-year-old Australian, he has enjoyed a stellar career in his native land, setting a record for wins by an apprentice that still stands and winning four riding championships at his base track in Brisbane, Queensland. Despite his success at home, or perhaps because of it, Palmer has indulged a desire to expand his horizons in recent years.

"I went to Hong Kong in 1994 and was the leading rider for the first three months I was there, so I ended up staying for five years," he said. "I sort of blazed a trail, because other Australian riders followed me. I also rode in Macau for two years, and the same thing happened. I know there will be riders in Australia watching to see how I do this year, and if I have success some will probably follow me here, too."

Palmer said the seeds of his current venture were planted while visiting the U.S. in 1984, when he saw John Henry win the Arlington Million. They remained dormant until last summer, when he received a call from an Australian acquaintance involved in Florida racing.

"He just urged me to come to the U. S., and I started asking around to see where I might have a chance to do some good. This place kept coming up, so here I am."

Palmer started galloping horses here about three weeks ago, and he feels he is ready for the challenge of American racing.

"It's going to be a big adjustment for me and I'll have to prove myself all over again, but I'm used to that," he said. "I've been successful everywhere I have gone, and I hope to be successful here as well. I'm not planning on a short stay."