07/23/2002 11:00PM

Special K, new special force

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DEL MAR, Calif. - For the newcomer, Del Mar can be intimidating. Six-day racing weeks put a terrible strain on the work ethic. Seasonal visitors feel obligated to participate in the local customs, and there is a always the temptation to have way too much fun.

Do not, however, expect Kevin Krigger to be fazed by such mundane distractions as surf, sand, and cool libations. For entertainment in his native Virgin Islands, Krigger and his pals would ride match races on the white sand beaches of St. Croix. Even the occasional hurricane could be an entertaining change of pace.

"It used to take the stress off the same old things," Krigger said in his clipped Caribbean accent. "We had horses I had to tie up to graze every day. After coming home from school, that used to get tiring.

"When the hurricane comes you set them loose," he went on. "You don't worry about them, because you know they're going to go some place safe. Then after the hurricane, when everything is all blown around, you catch the horses and go riding from one side of the island to the other, to see how it looks. Usually, it was pretty busted up."

A pattern is starting to take shape. If 100-knot winds are an adventure, race-riding must be a breeze. Blame it on raw youth, for Krigger is just 18, a smooth-faced, wide-eyed apprentice who has been riding professionally for less than a year.

Just about everything he's done lately has been the first time he's done it, from his toe in the American water at Thistledown in Ohio, to his westward migration to San Francisco and then, last April, to the Southern California.

"When I got here from Ohio, I still had spots of frostbite on my face," he recalled.

At each port the weather got warmer, but the competition grew stiffer, and Krigger has been holding his own. He emerged from the Hollywood Park meet a solid sixth in the standings with 27 wins, ahead of such household names as David Flores, Mike Smith and Garrett Gomez. If he is impressed with himself, he doesn't show it.

"I was dreaming about doing this last year," Krigger said last weekend between races. "Then, when I stop and I think that I'm really doing it, I still think I'm dreaming."

At first, all he really wanted was a shot at a regular job riding races at Randall "Doc" James Racetrack in St. Croix. But chances were limited, so he took the advice of an island acquaintance, who spun tales of opportunity in the States. Ten months later, Krigger is answering to his new American nickname - Special K.

Krigger's Hollywood stats fit well with past apprentices. During the summer of 2000, Tyler Baze won 31 races at Hollywood on his way to an Eclipse Award. The late J.C. Gonzalez won 27 there in 1998, while Sal Gonzalez Jr. set the modern bar at 51 in 1993.

At Del Mar, Krigger will discover a tradition that has been accommodating to rookie jocks. Beginning with Bill Shoemaker in 1949 (the summer he turned 18), no fewer than five apprentices have won the Del Mar championship. Shoe was followed by Miguel Yanez in 1963, Rudy Rosales in 1969, John Ramirez in 1972, and Steve Valdez 1973.

It hasn't happened lately, though, because Del Mar is different. Since the mid-1970's, when Laffit Pincay Jr. began riding regularly at Del Mar, a concentration of marquee veterans has pushed apprentice riders to the background. The best recent finish among the young riders was fifth in the standings by Baze, who won 27 races at Del Mar in 2000.

Krigger has veteran agent Tony Matos in his corner, as well as the growing respect of some very tough critics. Gary Stevens was among the first established stars to notice the lanky teenager during a road trip to ride Macho Uno in the Ohio Derby at Thistledown last September.

"We had the same valet," Stevens said. "Kevin introduced himself and asked me if I'd watch him ride. I was impressed. He looked seasoned way beyond his experience. I think his mental attitude mirrors the way he rides. He's very laid back, and very patient. He lets the horses do the work."

Krigger is definitely a cool hand, which has given him a shot to ride more than his share of the longer grass races usually reserved for veterans. Krigger got the thrill of his young life when he suited up to sub for Eddie Delahoussaye aboard Saranac Lake in the inaugural running of the $500,000 American Oaks at Hollywood Park on July 6.

The filly did not fare well, but Krigger looked great anyway, adding his own green leggings to the resplendent Bert and Diana Firestone silks that had graced such champions as Genuine Risk, April Run, and Honest Pleasure. After the race, a grateful and slightly flustered Krigger expressed his gratitude with both a "thank you" and a "merci." Dermot Weld, the filly's Irish trainer, understood perfectly.

"They told me they might even ask me to come over and ride some horses for them in Ireland," Krigger beamed. "Wouldn't that be something?"

It would. But why not? For Krigger, dreams seem to keep coming true.