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Hot Seat : Little-Known Panamanian Wigberto Ramos Will Ride Bull Inthe Heather in His Kentucky Derby Debut

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In recent years, the Kentucky Derby has been won by such jockeys as Pat Day, Craig Perret, Pat Valenzuela, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, Bill Shoemaker, Angel Cordero, Laffit Pincay, Eddie Delahoussaye and Jorge Velasquez.

There’s not an obscure rider in that bunch, and a rule of thumb about winning Derby jockeys is that if they’re not already in the Racing Hall of Fame, they’re on the front steps.

For the 119th Derby, to be run Saturday, Churchill Downs has rounded up many of the usual suspects. Day, trying to win his second consecutive Derby, will ride. So will McCarron, Pincay, Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, Velasquez, Jerry Bailey and Perret.

And so will Wigberto Ramos.

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Wigberto who?

That’s Wigberto Ramos--of the Chame, Panama, Ramoses--who will be riding Bull Inthe Heather, his first Derby mount. Bull Inthe Heather, the Florida Derby winner, was installed at 10-1 odds Thursday as 19 horses were entered for a Kentucky Derby heavily laced with inconsistent and ne’r-do-well horses. The favorites are Prairie Bayou, Personal Hope and Storm Tower, at respective odds of 5-2, 7-2 and 9-2.

Should Bull Inthe Heather win the Derby, Ramos will become the first jockey to win the race in his debut since Ronnie Franklin rode Spectacular Bid home in 1979.

Ramos, 25, has ridden Bull Inthe Heather in his last three starts--a second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, the Florida Derby victory at Gulfstream, and a second in the Flamingo at Hialeah.

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After the last two races, trainer Howie Tesher’s phone rang with calls from jockey agents around the country who were eager for their clients to take over on Bull Inthe Heather.

“There were four or five jockeys interested,” Tesher said. “From California, New York and local (Florida).”

Despite his success with the big colt, Ramos riding Bull Inthe Heather in the Derby was not a given.

“Finally, the owner (Arthur Klein) called me at 4 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Let’s stick with this kid,’ ” Tesher said.

Tesher seems to agree with the choice.

“I like the guy,” the trainer said. “He’s a strong rider and he’s going to be a good jockey. He rides a lot like Jorge Chavez (a top New York jockey who also has ridden Bull Inthe Heather). Horses seem to run for him.”

That testimonial was submitted even though Ramos didn’t follow instructions the day that Bull Inthe Heather won the Florida Derby by two lengths over Storm Tower on a sloppy track.

“I told him before the race to stay on the outside, because that was the best part of the track,” Tesher said. “But he brought him up on the inside, because I guess he felt he had a spot to go through. If he had got beat, I would have been screaming at him.”

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The Derby, particularly a 19-horse Derby like Saturday’s, is a jockeys’ race.

“We’ll all have to have our thinking caps on,” said Randy Romero, who rides Dixieland Heat, a 15-1 shot after his undefeated record was spoiled with a third-place finish in the Blue Grass.

Although he has never ridden in the Derby, Ramos knows his way around Churchill Downs and is known as a strong finisher, which matches Bull Inthe Heather’s running style. In the fall of 1991, Ramos was the second-leading rider here. On Wednesday, he rode a 40-1 shot, the longest price on the board, to victory in the feature race.

Panama has been producing top jockeys for decades. Manny Ycaza, Braulio Baeza, Pincay and Alex Solis were born and started there, attending a school for riders to hone their skills. Ramos worked around the barns at the Panama City track and became the country’s leading apprentice rider in 1987. Two years later, he was the second-leading jockey overall. At the end of 1989, he moved to Florida and two years ago he tied a Gulfstream seasonal record by riding 97 winners.

That same year, Ramos went down in a nasty spill at Monmouth Park. He suffered nerve damage in his legs and three vertebrae were knocked out of line. Last spring, Ramos moved to Hollywood Park to test the waters. He had ridden in only four races when the pain in his back sent him back to a doctor in Florida.

Told to either have an operation or give the back time to heal, Ramos took nine months off, returning to action in Florida this winter.

Tesher said that Ramos appeared nervous in the minutes before the Florida Derby, the jockey’s biggest victory. Tesher doesn’t think he has a jittery jockey for Saturday, but if he’s wrong, it might be the first case of a jockey instead of the horse washing out (noticeably perspiring) in the post parade.

“When they put me in the gate, I will be all right,” Ramos said. “I know there will be a lot of people (more than 100,000), but I do not think it will bother me. We will need some luck. I have a big, strong horse. We should be in the middle of the pack in the early part, but he has enough strength to make his own room when he makes his run.”

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In Bull Inthe Heather’s last Derby workout, five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 Tuesday, regular exercise rider Yma Sherren was aboard.

“The owner wanted Wigberto to work him,” Tesher said. “But I’m glad I was able to talk him into using the exercise rider. Wigberto never works him, and I didn’t want to change the routine at this late stage.”

Post positions in a big Derby field are frequently pivotal, because horses outside No. 14, in the auxiliary starting gate, seldom win the race. But when the numbers were drawn, none of the favorites wound up in the auxiliary gate. Here is the field, in post-position order, with jockeys and odds:

Storm Tower, Rick Wilson, 9-2; Kissin Kris, Jose Santos, 30-1; Truth Of It All, Velasquez, 8-1; Union City, Valenzuela, 8-1; Prairie Bayou, Mike Smith, 5-2; Sea Hero, Bailey, 30-1; Personal Hope, Stevens, 7-2; Rockamundo, Calvin Borel, 20-1; Silver of Silver, Jacinto Vasquez, 8-1; Bull Inthe Heather, Ramos, 10-1; Tossofthecoin, Pincay, 8-1; Mi Cielo, Aaron Gryder, 8-1; Wild Gale, Shane Sellers, 8-1; Ragtime Rebel, Robert Lester, 8-1; Dixieland Heat, Randy Romero, 15-1; Wallenda, Day, 15-1; Corby, McCarron, 12-1; Diazo, Desormeaux, 12-1; and El Bakan, Perret 8-1.

Corby and Diazo, both owned by Allen Paulson, will be coupled in the betting. Other than Union City, the seven horses at 8-1 are in the mutuel field, considered the least likely winners by track handicapper Mike Battaglia. All starters will carry 126 pounds, with $735,900 of the $985,900 purse going to the winner.

Tesher is happy with post No. 10 for Bull Inthe Heather, a son of 1986 Derby winner Ferdinand.

“No. 10 worked for a horse in this race 20 years ago,” Tesher said.

In 1973, Secretariat broke from No. 10, winning the Derby en route to winning the Triple Crown.


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