08/12/2001 11:00PM

They don't ride like rookies

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - When the doors opened for the 9:30 p.m. showing of "American Pie 2" at a local theater last Friday night, apprentice riders Jorge Duarte Jr., Julian Pimentel, and Victor Carrero rushed in to secure seats in the last row.

At night, these three show their youth, but in the afternoons at Monmouth Park, they look like veterans.

Duarte is 16. Pimentel and Carrero are both 20. They make up arguably the strongest apprentice division in Monmouth Park history. With only three weeks remaining in the meet, Carrero is fourth in the jockey standings with 43 wins and will soon pass the injured Joe Bravo. With the way Carrero has been riding lately and with him trailing Chuck Lopez by only five wins, a runner-up finish to likely winner Eibar Coa is possible. Pimentel has 31 wins, eighth in the standings, and Duarte is right outside the top 10 with 19 wins.

Since 1992, only two apprentices - Rosemary Homeister (1992) and Rachel Lavoy (2000) - have finished in the top five. This year, there is a possibility for two apprentices to make the top five, and there will almost certainly be one.

Carrero, from Santurce, Puerto Rico, sat on a horse for the first time only three years ago. He was hooked from then on, attending El Comandante jockey school and displaying the drive that has earned him instant success in the U.S. Carrero earned the award for galloping the most horses in a year at jockey school, working 3,000 horses while riding four mornings a week. He was in the school for two years before becoming a jockey in Puerto Rico last Jan. 1. How he eventually came here is a story unto itself.

Jose Morales was a rider for 15 years in the U.S. and before becoming an agent for such top jockeys as Mario Verge and Jose Ferrer. But Morales returned to Puerto Rico to be with his wife three years ago when their daughter died in a car crash. Once back in Puerto Rico, he began working with his brother, Ramon Morales, one of the top trainers at El Comandante. That is when he met Carrero.

"When I first met Victor, he was just starting," Morales said. "He was a very hard worker, and he would always ask me if I could help him. He would always ask me, 'Can I get on some horses?' I saw right away that he had what it takes to be a good rider."

Morales gave Carrero tapes of American races and the best jockeys, and with each horse he rode, Carrero's love of racing increased. He asked Morales to take him to the U.S., but Morales, still recovering from his family tragedy, was reluctant at first.

"When he first asked me, I said I didn't want to come back," Morales said. "I spent three years seeing what kind of person he was. He loved the business and improved all the time. I talked to my wife and decided to take a shot with him."

Carrero came to the U.S. in March and won with his first mount at Philadelphia Park aboard a horse trained by Ron Glorioso. He had a short stint at Delaware Park, but Morales and Carrero decided to ride at Monmouth because of trainer John Servis. Servis told Morales that he would put Carrero on at least half of the horses he ran there. Carrero relocated to the Jersey Shore, and he has been successful from the start. His first winner was for trainer Eddie Broome. In addition to Broome and Servis, he has also ridden for trainers Todd Pletcher and J. Willard Thompson, who has used the three apprentices almost exclusively.

With every race, it seems Carrero builds more confidence and becomes more patient. "Being a jockey is the only thing I know how to do," Carrero said through an interpreter. "If it wasn't for my agent, I would still be in Puerto Rico."

According to Morales, one of the reasons Carrero is so motivated was the death of his father last year at the age of 47. Carrero talks to his mother in Puerto Rico by telephone nearly every day. He speaks very little English, but he is learning. His desire to be a top rider is clear from his schedule: He and Morales wake up at 3 o'clock every morning to drive to Monmouth from Philadelphia so Carrero can gallop horses before the day's races.

Pimentel and Duarte, both born in Colombia, have taken opposite routes to their apprenticeships.

Pimentel began riding in Colombia. When he arrived in the U.S., he waited before resuming his career. He exercised horses for three years for Bill Mott in New York, and eventually Mott put Pimentel on some of his horses at Saratoga and Belmont. Last November, Pimentel won his first race aboard one of Mott's horses at Aqueduct. He came to Monmouth with few connections but has gained them through exceptional riding.

In contrast, Duarte, whose father rode horses in south Florida, took out his jockey's license at the earliest age possible, 16. Duarte had traveled back and forth from Colombia to the U.S. to see his dad ride, and he moved here permanently at the age of 15. He exercised horses on Alan Goldberg's Colts Neck farm for a few months before he turned 16, then became a professional rider. He earned his first win at Aqueduct in his second career ride on Nov. 1 for Goldberg and finished ninth in the jockey standings there. Duarte's weight allowance will end at the conclusion of this meet.

All three said that they would head to The Meadowlands next and hoped to ride some at Belmont and Aqueduct. They are not sure what will happen after they lose their weight allowances, but right now they are dedicating themselves to the sport. And leaving little time to enjoy the movies or going out at night.