04/17/2002 11:00PM

Sterling hardly a rookie

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CHICAGO - To a national audience with only a passing knowledge of Midwestern racing, it may seem like Larry Sterling popped out of nowhere. Actually, he has been around his whole life.

The 32-year-old Sterling, the son of a trainer, essentially grew up at Santa Anita. He has been a jockey for 16 years, but this spring is having the meet of his career at Sportsman's Park. Sterling leads the rider standings with 39 wins, 13 more than his closest pursuer. Two weeks ago, Sterling won the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby with War Emblem, giving him a taste of national exposure.

A week after the Illinois Derby, Sterling won the $100,000 Lady Hallie Handicap here, and on Saturday he has picked up the mount on McMahon, a viable contender in the National Jockey Club Handicap.

Sterling is on a roll, but he's not likely to ride War Emblem's coattails to further prominence. Russell Reineman sold a majority share of War Emblem to The Thoroughbred Corp. shortly after the Illinois Derby, and the colt moved from the barn of Bobby Springer into Bob Baffert's stable. Sterling said he knows Baffert from his time in California, but a call he put into the trainer last week went unreturned.

"I know I'm definitely out," Sterling said Thursday.

Still, Sterling feels that losing the horse is a small blemish on an otherwise lovely spring. In another season, he might not have ridden War Emblem at all.

During his five years on this circuit, Sterling has been successful but unspectacular. His career has snagged on a classic jockey's Catch-22: In order to get the best horses, you have to ride a lot of winners; but in order to ride a lot of winners, you have to get the best horses.

Beyond his own work and talent, Sterling has trainer Mike Reavis to thank for breaking the cycle. Sterling is Reavis's first-call rider, and with 24 wins here, Reavis is having a great meet.

"Reavis is my main outfit, and he's killing them," Sterling said. "You'll get calls from everyone if you can get on top."

That's what happened with War Emblem, a mount Sterling picked up shortly before the Illinois Derby.

"He's helped out for years, even when he wasn't riding for me," Springer said. "It's what's kept him in the business. The ones that have a good work ethic are the ones you turn to when something changes."

Sterling hopes the party doesn't end when Sportsman's closes, and that this meet will propel him to a good year. Still, the jockey standings at Sportsman's and Hawthorne go round and round, and at Arlington, where heavy hitters like Mark Guidry, Robby Albarado, and Rene Douglas show up, the dynamic shifts entirely. But even if his business tails off, Sterling isn't going anywhere.

"I've had 32 years, and it's been 32 years right here at the racetrack," he said.

Euros with an affinity for dirt

The Irish-born trainer Niall O'Callaghan has a passion for American football, and many of the European imports that have been coming regularly into his barn during recent seasons also have a surprising American taste - they love the dirt.

Generous Rosi, Grade 1-placed last year, was one of them, and in Florida this winter, O'Callaghan ran several European transplants in 3-year-old dirt races. Last week, he started Generous Rosi's sister, Aunty Rose, here in the Lady Hallie, and on Saturday he runs Hail the Chief, a live contender in the National Jockey Club Handicap.

O'Callaghan said he isn't specifically focused on Europeans, just on upgrading the quality of his stock. "I'm always looking to get nice horses," he said. "Wherever there are horses available, I'm trying to acquire stakes horses."

He might have one in Hail the Chief, who was sent to him last winter by owner Peter Crane and has raced four times in this country, all on dirt. Hail the Chief won a high-end Gulfstream Park allowance race in February, and last month was beaten only a half-length by Macho Uno in another Gulfstream allowance. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110 for that race.

"He was a nice handicap winner at Ascot," O'Callaghan said. "He had been particularly effective at Lingfield on the lead on the all-weather [dirt track]. As an older horse, they thought he could earn more money in the U.S., and I think he has the potential to do that."

* Jockey Randy Meier, thrown from his mount in a race on April 11, said he will miss three or four weeks while he recovers from broken ribs, a deflated lung, and a broken toe. That means Meier will miss the remainder of the meet at Sportsman's, where he is the all-time leading rider, and the beginning of the meet at Hawthorne, which opens May 5.