02/23/2004 12:00AM

Two years away did Radke wonders

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ALBANY, Calif. - Did Kevin Radke wrap up the Golden Gate Fields' riding title after scoring five wins for five different trainers last Friday?

With 30 days left in the meeting, Radke leads the jockey standings with 68 victories. Chance Rollins is second with 57 victories, and perennial champ Russell Baze, who missed two months with a displaced fracture of his right collar bone, is seventh with 40 wins.

"I won five in a day four times at Seattle and once even won six, but I don't remember doing it with all different trainers," Radke said.

Radke, the Emerald Downs riding champion with 143 victories each of the past two years, says he will stay in northern California this spring instead of going to Seattle.

"I never wanted to leave here," said Radke, who left in 2001 at the end of the Golden Gate Fields meeting, when he won 36 races from 363 mounts. "It was tough down here. There were a number of good riders. I couldn't ever do any good."

Radke is doing plenty of good now. He's riding with confidence, getting live mounts, and enjoying a bit of luck, as he did in Friday's first race, when Shirazberry stumbled badly leaving the gate.

"Good horses make good riders," Radke said. "Luck is a part of it. A lot of times, the best horse doesn't win, but Friday, nothing could go wrong. I've been fortunate to get good horses and been able to put them in a spot to win."

Ray Harris, Baze's agent, handles Radke's book.

"Ray had talked to me about riding here, so when Russell came up to Emerald last summer, I asked if he'd mind if I came down to ride his second calls," Radke said. "Winning that many races at Emerald was a key for me. I learned, and I got my confidence. You can't learn anything riding slow horses. You think you can, but you can't."

Win lifts Avila's spirits

Juan Avila, a 25-year-old apprentice, can appreciate Radke's sentiment. In 94 career races, he has only two wins, both coming as a late substitute.

Avila's second win, aboard Fortune Seeker last Thursday, should give him a boost. He took the lead early, was headed by Kinslo Pride, and got pinned to the rail. He didn't panic and came back to win by a head for trainer Gil Matos.

"He rode her good," Matos said. "He kept her busy. He gets a lot of run from the longshots he's on."

Avila notched a third with 83-1 shot Button Button on Sunday.

"I still felt good when that horse put her head in front. I didn't panic, but I was very happy to win," said Avila, whose career was delayed when he was sidelined more than a year after a training accident.

Sherman sends out a pair

Trainer Art Sherman has a powerful duo in Wednesday's feature, a $25,000 claimer at six furlongs.

Sherman will saddle Lytle Creek, a winner of two straight whom he just claimed at Santa Anita, and Fog City Willy, who snapped back to life in his last start.

Lytle Creek, a winner of 13 of 35 starts, including 3 of 5 at Golden Gate Fields, has been claimed in each of his past five starts. Fog City Willy, who has won 16 of 46 starts, including seven of 11 here, drew the outside and looms the one to catch early. Lytle Creek can sit wherever he wants and always seems to fire in the lane. Barron H will be a late factor from off the pace in the field of eight, which also includes comebacking Big League.

'Shooter' fine after shaky race

El Dorado Shooter turned in a rare poor performance in his comeback in Saturday's $100,000 Ken Maddy Sprint for Cal-breds.

Trainer Cliff DeLima was at a loss to explain El Dorado Shooter's performance but happily reported, "He came back fine. It's just one of those things. He'll be back another day."

Graceful Stepper goes out with win

Graceful Stepper, the 5-year-old mare who overcame a fractured skull and a fracture in her left hind leg before making it to the races, scored a stirring victory by a head in a $40,000 starter allowance race on Presidents Day.

Unfortunately, Graceful Stepper tore a suspensory ligament in her right front leg and will now be retired.

Graceful Stepper ends her career with two wins and two thirds in seven starts and $23,185 in earnings.