Some bad jockeys deserve sympathy. Some deserve contempt. Maryland has plenty of riders for both categories.

Even the most hard-core gamblers must feel a measure of compassion for young apprentices who are struggling to break in to the sport. The current crop of apprentice jockeys at Laurel is not a strong group and some of them -- notably James Aburn, Dennis Collins, Christine Hall and Bonnie Jones -- have not yet displayed much aptitude for their chosen profession.

Sadly, Aburn finished last in my rankings of the whole Maryland jockey colony. (Even the most sympathetic of critics could hardly overlook his ride on Frolic Dancer, when he got two strides out of the gate and fell off.) But the apprentice may take heart to know that if veteran Edmund Ford had but one more mount to qualify for the list, he would have nailed down last place with a rating that could be mistaken for a thermometer reading in Antarctica.

There are veterans, too, who deserve respect even though they are losing or riding poorly. Danny Wright is one. Wright would be the first to admit that he was never blessed with great natural talent, but he has won more than 2,000 races in his career with sheer hustle and determination. Even if he is less effective now -- he has won only nine of 189 starts at the Laurel meeting -- he gives 100 percent effort every time. He is a marked contrast with some of the other veteran riders who have become unaggressive, tentative or even frightened.

Jesse Davidson, the former national riding champion who went to jail for race-fixing and then struggled for years to get reinstated, is one such veteran who looks terrible on a horse. When he was caught on the rail in traffic aboard a filly named Meir Magic in a recent Laurel race, Davidson looked as if he were in a state of utter paralysis.

Davidson disputes such criticism. "I think I'm a better rider now than I was, say, 10 years ago," he insisted. "Physically, I can get into a horse as much as anybody else. When I can't do my job well, I hope I'm able to face up to it and retire. I don't want anyone to say, 'Jesse -- he's over the hill.' "

I have to say it: Jesse, you're over the hill.

Gregg McCarron often displays the same kind of tentativeness in traffic as Davidson. More often he stays out of harm's way by going extremely wide. But the brother of champion rider Chris McCarron has been luckless, too. Even when he has been aboard decent horses and made no mistakes with them, he still couldn't get to the winner's circle. McCarron suffered through a two-month stretch when he won a single race; he became an almost automatic throw-out.

The veteran acknowledged that he is going through a drought now, but he thinks it is only temporary and his confidence is unshaken: "I've won 2,200 races; how many has Kent Desormeaux won? Four hundred? Five hundred? I wouldn't mind hooking him from the eighth pole {to the finish line} any time."

It would be easy to criticize the riding of others like Paul Nicol, Gary Stahlbaum or Danny Nied, but it's almost pointless to knock people who were simply not blessed with much talent and can't do anything about it. It is far more deplorable to have the talent and waste it -- as Donald A. Miller Jr. does.

To the serious bettors at Laurel, no member of the jockey colony is more infuriating than Miller -- one of the most successful riders here for many years -- because he so often looks as if he is bored by his job.

His rides often seem to be unaggressive; he often finishes with no vigor whatsoever; and it looks as if he often wraps up completely on a horse when he has decided the animal has no chance. An archetypical Miller ride was his performance on a claimer named Fly River in the third race Jan. 4. He broke from post No. 3 but didn't look to save ground, moving about seven-wide on the backstretch. The horse started accelerating in the stretch, but Miller gave him no help at all, whipping about as hard as I swat my cat when she sits on my Racing Form. Fly River finished fifth, beaten by one length, in the $5,000 claiming race; two races later under another jockey, he won for $8,500.

The jockey said his tendency to ease up on horses is well-calculated, a matter of judgment rather than ennui. "I've been riding over seven years now and I've learned to judge horses pretty well and to know how much horse I have under me," Miller said. "If you've got to tear a horse up to finish fifth, you're better off just making sure he finishes without knocking him out.

"I know a lot of people don't look at it that way," Miller said. "They say, 'If you'd tried a little harder you might have been fourth.' "

Miller and the other riders who share this philosophy might profit from looking at the films of the eighth race at Laurel last Saturday. Desormeaux was riding the favorite, Balloon Meet, who fought for the lead along the rail but couldn't keep up and dropped back to third place, to fourth place, then looked on the turn as if he would finish far up the track. At this point, many other riders would have stopped persevering. But this was the point where Desormeaux showed why he was the country's top race-winning rider last year. He pushed. He shoved. He whipped furiously. He wouldn't let the horse quit. Balloon Meet dug in and came back to score an utterly incredible victory.

Sadly, it is not Desormeaux who seems to be the role model for much of the Maryland jockey colony. Instead of energy and enthusiasm he radiates, the riding in Maryland is more often characterized by caution, complacency and indifference.