08/15/2001 11:00PM

Wrestler-turned-rider thrives in new work

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As the leading trainer at Delaware Park, Tim Ritchey can afford to be selective when it comes to hiring a jockey to ride first call for him. Rarely does Ritchey entrust that job to an apprentice.

"I will not ride an apprentice unless I think he is a good, solid rider," Ritchey said. "The last apprentice riders I used were Edgar Prado and Kent Desmoreaux."

Needless to say, Ritchey has pretty high standards. Prado and Desormeaux are now among the best jockeys in the country.

It speaks volumes that Ritchey went out of his way to request an unknown apprentice to become his go-to rider this spring. Jeremy Rose hasn't disappointed Ritchey, and from all indications, he's capable of following in the footsteps of Prado and Desormeaux.

Through Aug. 15, the 22-year-old Rose is the only apprentice ranked among the nation's top 50 jockeys in both wins (163) and earnings ($3.02 million). His closest competitor among apprentices, Kris Prather, is a distant second with 114 winners and earnings of $1.61 million, though she has not ridden since mid-June because of injuries.

Rose is also atop the jockey standings at Delaware Park, a highly competitive colony that includes five-time track riding champion Mike McCarthy; Anthony Black, winner of more than 4,000 career races and four-time leading rider at Philadelphia Park; and Ramon Dominguez, who recently surpassed the injured Travis Dunkelberger as the national leader in wins.

Remarkably, Rose has only been riding full-time for six months. Racing wasn't even in his plans when he graduated from Bellefonte High School in central Pennsylvania, where he was a state champion wrestler in the 103-pound class. Rose intended to go to college and wrestle for Mansfield University, but the school dropped its wrestling program three years ago.

"So a friend of mine who owns racehorses took me to the track," Rose said, "and I knew I was hooked."

In 1999, at the age of 20, Rose got his first racetrack exposure working for the Petro brothers, trainer Mike and jockey Nick, at Delaware Park.

"The Petros were the ones who taught me how to race ride," Rose said. "I was with them for two years. Once I started to get put on horses for Mike and started galloping and working horses, that's when I knew this was for me and it was going to be fun."

He was hardly an instant success, however. Last year, Rose finished the Delaware meet with just two winners in 18 mounts and decided to take some time off before committing to riding full-time.

"I wasn't ready yet," said Rose. "The Petros always told me to take my time and do it right. Don't do it halfway and then start learning as a journeyman."

So Rose went with the Petros to Florida and again galloped horses. He was content until February, when Mike Petro delivered a startling message at Gulfstream Park.

"I came in the barn one day and he said, '?You have got to leave.' I was in awe. I was thinking, 'What does he mean I have to leave and where is he going to send me?' "

Petro then gave him the good news. Ritchey had called and wanted Rose to ride first call for his large stable. Initially, Rose hesitated.

"At the time, I still didn't think I was ready, but Mike Petro convinced me that this was my opportunity and I couldn't pass it up," Rose said. "They sent me up to Maryland the next day and I started riding from there."

Ritchey does more than just put Rose on a bunch of live horses. He also serves as the jockey's critic.

"If I do something wrong, he'll tell me right away," Rose said. "He doesn't tell me because he's mad I made a mistake, but instead to help me as a rider and to help me improve. I don't make the same mistake twice too often, so everything he tells me I fix right away. Every time he says something, it works the way he said it would."

Rose credits the Petro brothers for their help in his learning process. "The biggest thing they taught me was how to relax a horse, how to rate, and how to finish," Rose said. "They gave me a great foundation."

After coming so far so quickly, Rose has his sights set on two lofty goals - to finish as leading rider at Delaware and to win the Eclipse Award for apprentice jockey.

To maximize his opportunities to win as many races as possible, Rose will ride in Maryland on days Delaware isn't open and accept evening mounts at Penn National and, starting next month, The Meadowlands.

* Live racing on Wednesdays will return to Delaware Park's schedule starting on Aug. 22 and continue through Oct. 31.

* After a two-week break to give the turf course time to refreshen, turf racing will resume this weekend.