04/18/2002 12:00AM

After long rehab, Bravo's back riding with renewed vigor

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - His name won't be found among the leaders in the jockey standings for the 2002 Gulfstream Park session. But ask Joe Bravo how he feels about the meet so far and he will answer with just one word - ecstatic.

Bravo did not join the local jockey colony until March 23 after spending nine months on the sidelines recuperating from a broken fibia and tibia in his left leg suffered last summer at Monmouth Park. In the three weeks since his return, however, Bravo has already won 12 races, including three on Thursday.

"I really expected to get back riding a lot sooner than I did," Bravo said while relaxing in the jockeys' quarters following his easy victory aboard Personal Prize in Thursday's second race. "I had hoped to start around the first of February. But I didn't want to return until I was 100 percent and have to start and stop again because I wasn't up to it. Fortunately, my leg feels really good. I have my good days and bad days and I'm in a little pain now and then but basically it feels fine and I'm not nearly as sore body-wise as I thought I'd be after all that time off."

Bravo also said the time away from riding did him a lot of good mentally.

"This is the first time I've really been hurt seriously enough to be out of riding for an extended period of time," said Bravo. "I'd been riding for 13 years and really had not taken any time off and to be honest I was getting a little sour. It was getting to be like a job for me. Now I feel like a bug boy again. I enjoy getting out and working horses in the morning and especially being back competing during the afternoons."

Bravo will stay here through the end of the meet next Wednesday then split his time between New York and Delaware until Monmouth Park opens on May 11. He had been the perennial leader at Monmouth and was in the midst of a battle for another title with Eibar Coa when he sustained his season-ending injury last summer.

"I'm really going to gear myself up for Monmouth, and of course one of my obvious goals is to get my title back," said Bravo.

Walder's secret of success

Bravo isn't the only person "ecstatic" over the 2002 meet. So is trainer Peter Walder, who sent Personal Prize out Thursday for his 15th win from just 33 starters at the meet, a phenomenal 45 percent success rate.

"This meet has been incredible, unbelievable," said Walder. "Coming in, I was shooting for 14 victories and between me and my wife [Francine] we've won 16 races and still have a couple of more shots this weekend."

Walder credits his success to hard work and having owners who will let him run his horses where they belong. For example, Personal Prize has won three in a row, including his last pair for $18,000 price tags.

"Not all owners are realistic about where to run their horses," said Walder. "They have a horse win for 18 and they want to run him back for $25,000. Mine allow me to give the horses plenty of time and run them where they can win."

Like Bravo, Walder will head to Monmouth this summer, although he hopes to branch out to New York during the season.

"I love racing here and at Monmouth," Walder said. "Both tracks treat me great. This is the best place to spend the winter and Monmouth is the best place to be in the summer. Although there's nothing in the world like the feeling of winning a race at Saratoga."

Madrid back from Saudi Arabia

Jockey Sebastian Madrid has returned to south Florida after spending his third consecutive winter in Saudi Arabia, where he rides first call for Crown Prince Abdullah.

"I love it in Saudi Arabia," said Madrid. "I won a lot of races and they treat me great over there."

Madrid will reunite with agent Bryce Soth for the upcoming Calder meet.