10/12/2002 12:00AM

Rivera making progress


SAN MATEO, Calif. - Northern California has become a haven for hot apprentice riders in the past year.

It began with Kevin Krigger, who arrived at Golden Gate Fields last December. Francisco Duran won his first race during the Golden Gate Fields meeting, and has developed into a solid rider. Omar Figueroa arrived in the spring and became the third-leading rider at Bay Meadows behind Russell Baze and Jason Lumpkins.

The latest arrival of note is 21-year-old Jose Luis Rivera Jr.

Rivera's introduction to racing was as a fan in his native Puerto Rico when he was 12. "I would go see races, and I really liked it," he said.

When he finished high school, a neighbor, who was a former rider, suggested that Rivera attend a jockeys' school, where he learned the basics of riding, such as where to place his hands and how to use his knees and body to keep his balance.

After attending the school, Rivera didn't begin riding for two years as he learned more about his craft while working as an exercise rider for a year in Puerto Rico and for another year at Philadelphia Park.

He was also fighting a weight problem. He currently weighs 108 pounds but used to weigh 120.

"I've learned to control my appetite and eat smaller portions of food," said Rivera, who also runs several miles a day around the track after morning workouts.

Rivera, who began riding in March, is tied for eighth in the Bay Meadows jockey standings with 10 victories. He has won 19 races in his career and will continue to get a seven-pound advantage until he reaches 35 wins.

Rivera has impressed local trainers such as Art Sherman, who is third in the standings.

"I think he's pretty aggressive. He's good on a speed horse," Sherman said. "He looks good on a horse. He's going to be okay."

Rivera admits his strength as a rider is his ability to hand ride a horse, but he watches films daily in an attempt to improve.

"I'm learning to adapt to the way they ride in California," he said. "I'm watching myself in each race. I'm riding lower, and I'm learning to change the whip better."

o Bay Meadows has decided to try to run the $60,000-added Charles H. Russell Handicap on Sunday. The six-furlong race for fillies and mares was postponed last Saturday when only three horses were entered.

o A Seabiscuit bobblehead doll promotion has been rescheduled for Saturday. It was postponed last Saturday when the bobbleheads did not arrive because of the West Coast ports closures.