09/04/2008 11:00PM

Quick to conquer California


DEL MAR, Calif. - Rafael Bejarano, you've just won your third straight Southern California riding title in your first full season on the circuit. What are you going to do do now?

"I'm going to Machu Picchu."

Okay, so Bejarano is a little bit different from your average sports superstar. Disneyland is just up the road from Del Mar, but in Bejarano's world, the pull to visit home sweet home back in Peru between meets was far greater than any of the local California temptations. The elaborate Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, perched on a mountaintop at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, are Peru's most famous attraction, with a lore coursing through the consciousness of the Peruvian people. Think of Lourdes set somewhere in the Grand Canyon.

"I've been there one time, a couple years ago," Bejarano said. "From my home it's like from here to San Francisco. You have to take a train partway up the mountain, and then you walk, for two or three hours. It's huge, beautiful. An amazing place."

After wrapping up his business at Del Mar on Wednesday with a 45-36 margin over Joel Rosario, Bejarano was homeward bound to the southern Peruvian town of Arequipa, and a reunion with his parents, his two sisters, and his grandmother. It has been a year since Bejarano saw his family - a long, eventful year during which he has made a mark at the top of the West Coast scene like no East Coast invader since a 19-year-old kid named Kent Desormeaux hit town in 1990.

Even so, it took Desormeaux the better part of two seasons before he worked his way to the top of a jockey colony that included Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Alex Solis. Desormeaux swept the board in 1992 with titles at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Oak Tree before his season ended with multiple skull fractures sustained in an accident at Hollywood in December.

Bejarano's ascension has been rapid and relentless, although it can be argued that he was not sailing into the teeth of a jocks' room like the one faced by Desormeaux. Still, Bejarano won the Santa Anita title despite missing three weeks after fracturing two vertebrae in a fall. His championships at Hollywood and Del Mar were complemented by ventures east for choice stakes assignments - particularly aboard reigning champion Ginger Punch - and the looming Oak Tree season at Santa Anita could put Bejarano in a position to become the first rider to win every Southern California meet since Patrick Valenzuela turned the trick in 2003. Bejarano was asked if his sudden impact on Southern California was a surprise.

"Well, I try to do my best always, and I've been very lucky to get a lot of opportunities here," Bejarano said in his improving English.

"I had to change a little bit when I got here," he went on. "In New York and Kentucky, it is more patient, the way I learned to ride in Peru. I like to take my time. Here, it's like you have to stay in the game. I learn something every day."

In Peru, the teenage Bejarano was a marathon runner and a university student studying for a career as a pharmacist before he discovered Thoroughbreds at the major track in Lima. In short order he was Peru's leading apprentice, then made the leap to the U.S. to be the 2004 national champion in number of winners. Now 26, Bejarano is the youngest in a veritable Peruvian wave of accomplished riders, led by Jorge Chavez, Jose Valdivia, Julio Pezua, and Hall of Famer Edgar Prado.

"I recommended he go to California," Prado said. "He had one great supporter, and that was Bobby Frankel. He's light. He's young, and he's single. When you don't have a family, it's easier to move around. He had already conquered Kentucky and he did well in New York and Florida. Why not try something new?"

Bejarano has been represented by agent Joe Ferrar since late 2004.

"He's always positive," Ferrar said. "There's no negativity in him. And he's not one of these guys who's going to fight anybody or scream at anybody."

The exception that proves the rule occurred this summer at Del Mar, in the wake of a rough stretch run in the Best Pal Stakes that resulted in a jocks' room scuffle between Bejarano and Victor Espinoza. They both drew $500 fines.

"He was surprised at what happened," Ferrar noted. "He's normally a very passive guy. I've never seen him that angry."

It never hurts, though, when the quiet guy stands his ground. Bejarano takes a lot of cues from Prado, his role model and the godfather of modern Peruvian riders.

"I told him to always keep quiet if he didn't have anything nice to say," Prado said, then offered a variation on some Mark Twain wisdom. "It's better that people think you are a fool than to open your mouth and prove it."

Informed that Bejarano was making the trip to Machu Picchu, his countryman - stuck at Belmont Park - was immediately jealous.

"I wish I could go with him," Prado said. "It's a great experience, pure and clean."