Updated on 09/16/2011 9:45AM

Top apprentice a joke no longer

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Ryan Fogelsonger has come on after an awkward start to his career. He's following some big footsteps as a top Maryland-based apprentice.

LAUREL, Md. - Sitting in the living room of his parents' suburban Washington, D.C., home recently, Ryan Fogelsonger popped into the VCR a tape of a winning race he rode in May.

"I seriously sat there and laughed at myself and couldn't believe it was me," Fogelsonger, 21, recalled during a recent interview in the Laurel Park track kitchen. "I can't believe I looked that bad - not that I look that good right now - but I was like 'Oh, man, I'm not watching any more old tapes right now.'"

In the last several months, Fogelsonger has turned from laughingstock to leading rider in Maryland. He has vaulted past Francisco Duran and John McKee to become the nation's leading apprentice rider in wins (223) and purse earnings ($3.68 million) through Thursday.

He is poised to become the ninth Maryland-based jockey since 1974 to win an Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice, joining the likes of Chris McCarron, Ronnie Franklin, Mike Luzzi, and Kent Desormeaux. Eclipse Award voting takes place next month and the results will be announced on Jan. 27.

He won the Pimlico summer-fall meet by 27 wins over Mario Pino, becoming just the fifth apprentice to win a Maryland title. Through Thursday, his 59 wins at the six-week-old Laurel Park meet make him the leading rider by 20.

While Fogelsonger can now look back on the way he rode and laugh, back in May there was serious discussion among the Maryland stewards whether to grant Fogelsonger his jockey license.

"He was letting horses wander all over the racetrack," said steward Bill Passmore, a former jockey who won 3,531 races.

Passmore is joined in the Maryland stewards stand by former rider Phil Grove (3,991 career wins) and John Burke. Because Fogelsonger would be riding a lot for top Maryland trainer Dale Capuano, the stewards wanted to make sure he was ready.

"We pulled him aside and pointed out things, made sure he was at the movies," said Grove, referring to film sessions stewards routinely hold with apprentice riders. "We realized that once he got his certificate he was going to take off. He was with Dale and we wanted to make sure that we were satisfied with him before we issued him his license and allowed the public to bet on him."

Fogelsonger, who galloped and breezed horses for more than a year before beginning his career, did not disagree with the stewards' concerns.

"It was much, much different in the afternoons than it was in the mornings," Fogelsonger said. "I felt I could go out there and breeze a horse and look like I was doing it forever and I'd go out there in the afternoons and I'm over here, I'm over there, going every which way. Everyone was coming up to me and saying, 'you'll get it.' "

It took Fogelsonger a month to get his first win, which he accomplished on May 1. It took another 23 days for him to achieve his fifth victory, officially kicking off his apprenticeship, which will run through next May 24. Now, he is riding winners in bunches. Fogelsonger has had two five-win days and four four-win days. He has won three stakes.

"He is like the most pleasant surprise of the year," said trainer A. Ferris Allen. "In the spring he couldn't ride at all to the point where they thought about stopping him. The stewards weren't off base; he was very lost out there. He learned faster than I've ever seen anybody learn. He rides a very good race now."

Fogelsonger said things changed for him this summer at Colonial Downs, where he rode virtually the entire card daily. A self-proclaimed quick study, Fogelsonger said he learned from his mistakes race to race.

"I think a lot of it was because I was getting more experience every day," said Fogelsonger, whose 27 wins at Colonial were third best behind Mario Pino and Horatio Karmanos. "Every day, Joe Rocco would tell me how to hit a horse because I wasn't doing it right."

Fogelsonger does not come from a racing background. Growing up in Silver Spring, Md., Fogelsonger played soccer and ran track at Springbrook High School. Through a friend, Fogelsonger met Henry Colon, who exercised horses for Capuano.

Three weeks after Colon first took him to the racetrack, Fogelsonger was on his way to South Carolina to work for Franklin Smith, a trainer who is known for launching the career of Chris Antley. After about seven months, Fogelsonger returned to Maryland and worked a year for the Boniface family at Bonita Farm. He did everything from muck stalls to breeze horses.

After recovering from a shoulder injury in 2001, Fogelsonger went to work for Capuano, who used him for several months in the morning before allowing him to ride in the afternoon.

"Right now, I think he ranks up there with the best ones that have come through here," Capuano said. "One of the big things for him is horses just run for him. He's got a ways to go still, but he's good at getting them out of the gate and putting them in position. He rides aggressive . . . he gets busy on one pretty good. We worked on that in the morning and I think that has paid off in the afternoon."

Fogelsonger said he received several calls from people asking him to come to New York, but will bide his time in Maryland for now.

"I'm winning three or four races a day, why change?" he said. "[Edgar] Prado stayed in Maryland for eight years; look where he's at now. He was in no rush to be one of the greatest jockeys in the world. And now he is one of the greatest jocks in the world."

Fogelsonger said that is one of his goals.

Not long ago, that used to sound funny. Not any longer.