01/14/2005 12:00AM

Tough going in new year for Molina

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Anyone who has been in racing for an extended period of time knows that momentum can mean nearly everything.

As the new year approached, jockey Juan Molina Jr. was just beginning to get momentum on his side when he was hit by a double whammy that has left him without a riding victory this year. With 13 wins, Molina was the leading apprentice rider at the holiday meet that ended Dec. 31 at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., when he was sidelined by injury and suspension.

"Everything was going good until both those things happened," said Julio Espinoza, the former jockey who serves as Molina's agent, mentor, and translator.

Molina, 19, hails from Puerto Rico, where none of his family members is involved in racing. After a brief stay at Calder in south Florida, Molina ventured to Kentucky and began riding at Turfway in September. He enjoyed moderate success until the holiday meet, which served as a breakthrough period for him - until the spill.

Molina's mount, Malachite, was laying in a good forward position in the second race Jan. 2 at Turfway when the horse suddenly broke down, throwing Molina hard to the track. Although he was treated and released at a local hospital, Molina continued to experience severe soreness in his shoulder and missed about a week of action.

During his downtime, Molina served a three-day suspension for a previous riding infraction. At about the same time, some of his best clients, most notably trainer David Vance, departed Kentucky for the Oaklawn Park meet that begins Jan. 21. Before they knew it, Molina and Espinoza had become largely forgotten by Turfway horsemen, and since returning last weekend, Molina was 0 for 17 at the winter-spring meet.

"We're just going to have to try to regroup and get back our momentum," Espinoza said.

Fortunately for Molina, one of his rival apprentices, Rudolfo Ignacio, may be there to help - whether Ignacio intends to help or not. Conventional wisdom holds that when one or more apprentices, or "bugs," is hot, then opportunities present themselves for other apprentices to pick up the calls they can't fulfill.

"I've seen it happen a lot of times, where you get two or three or four calls for a bug, and the trainer gets the weight off his horse," said Steve Elzey, agent for Ignacio, who through Thursday had ridden 10 winners this year. "You can't ride every horse, so the trainer goes looking for another bug to get the weight break. The bugboys feed off each other in that kind of situation."

Molina has the mount on Intrinsic Danielle in the nominal feature race Sunday at Turfway, a $25,400 allowance at six furlongs. Top contenders in the field of 11 older horses include Jimmy One Punch, Strike Commander, Larson E Whipsnade, and Hawking.

The feature is the eighth of nine races.

* The Kentucky Thoroughbred Media and its active members will host representatives of the Kentucky Equine Education Project at a question-and-answer session at Turfway on Feb. 5, the same day as the WEBN Frog Stakes. The session will pertain to racing and gambling issues that may be addressed at the upcoming General Assembly session.