10/09/2008 11:00PM

Spataro's five-year journey to winner's circle

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Five years ago, behind the customer service desk at Woodbine, a young, slim 19-year-old assisted patrons and answered questions.

A few knowledgeable patrons, noting his size, wondered why he had not considered becoming a jockey.

Cory Spataro, who stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 110 pounds, had never ridden a Thoroughbred in his life, and in fact, had never had any contact with horses.

"I thought about what my customers had suggested and finally decided to learn more about horses," said Spataro.

"I signed on at the Harrogate Hills Riding School and joined a group of 13-year-old girls learning how to ride.

"In three months I had moved from the beginner's class to the advanced group and realized that maybe the dream of one day becoming a jockey was within the realm of possibility."

Spataro moved on Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario, where he began working with yearlings and older horses. After more than a year at Windfields, he went to the backstretch at Woodbine, did some hot walking, and soon understood that galloping powerful racehorses was no easy task.

"It was tough," said Spataro. "I wore my orange beginner's vest and did some galloping but I had some run off on me, a couple of spills, and soon recognized that there was still much more for me to learn.

"I decided to head to Alberta to gain more experience, knowing that the only way I would advance was through a serious daily work schedule. Luckily, I met trainers who were willing to put me aboard horses and my learning curve increased dramatically.

"Eventually, I graduated to riding in races at the track in Lethbridge, Alberta, a bullring where I managed to win a few races."

Spataro returned to Woodbine for the 2008 season and with his jockey's license intact and with agent Jack Lauzon as a guiding hand he began working horses while waiting for his first ride over the Woodbine oval.

In early July, he climbed aboard Honorable Crusader, took that runner 1 1/4 miles over the E.P. Taylor turf course and finished sixth. As in the case of all beginners, he rode without a whip.

"It was quite a trip from that customer service desk to being aboard a Thoroughbred and taking him around the two turns of that beautiful turf course," said Spataro. "Five years that changed my life."

As an apprentice with a 10-pound bug, Spataro has been riding primarily at Fort Erie this year. Up until last Tuesday, he had a 19 percent in-the-money figure with 43 runners, but that first win proved elusive.

In Tuesday's first race, trainer Winston Wilkinson legged him up aboard the chestnut fill, I See Rockets, and then proceeded to watch Spataro rate his mount off the early pace, then close ground inside to split horses and go clear to the wire.

"I felt that when we turned for home that I had the winner," said Spataro, "I hit her once and away she went. It was a great feeling to finally get the win and I welcomed the initiation that followed in the jocks' room.

"It would be nice to win three more this year and then possibly head south for the winter where I could gain more experience at one of the training facilities in Florida."

Beckon's once-huge lead shrinking

The Fort Erie riding title that once looked to be locked away in the pocket of Chad Beckon is no longer a certainty.

Beckon, leading the standings with three weeks to go, has 73 wins. But Rui Pimentel is now only five wins back. Dave Garcia, who rode five winners on Sunday, rounds out the top three with 58 wins.

One serious injury from five spills

Five riders went down on Monday, two in the fifth race, when Catherine O'Brien and Martin Ramirez were involved in a spill at the top of the stretch.

O'Brien sustained a broken leg and will miss the rest of the season. Ramirez was not injured.

After the 10th race, three riders went down as their horses were galloping out. Thankfully, no serious injuries to riders or horses resulted from the incidents.