10/07/2001 11:00PM

Ageless Eddie D. still a master


ARCADIA, Calif. - Eddie D. wasn't kidding. He said it with a straight face.

"Four is nice," the jockey said. "But I thought I had the horses to win with all six." Such brash talk, and from a kindly Hall of Famer like Eddie Delahoussaye.

Obviously, the adrenaline was still flowing late last Saturday afternoon as Delahoussaye was walking back to the jockeys' room after a day well done. Fans lingered along the grandstand tunnel, shouting down their praise for the man from Louisiana, "Way to go, Eddie! You're the best! You the man!"

"I'm going to take my Viagra tonight," Delahoussaye said as he waved and grinned. "That's one for the senior citizens."

Four, actually, at neatly spaced intervals over the final four races of the day. And he might have won five, had not a horse named Self Feeder taken his name way too seriously in the sixth race and tried to take a bite out of a horse to his inside.

Delahoussaye lost that one by a half and two heads. Then he got rolling:

Seventh race, 6 1/2 furlongs, for $32,000 claimers. Black Mercury drops back to last, farther back than he has ever raced before, and gets up to win by a neck.

Eighth race, the big one, in which Delahoussaye is reunited with Swept Overboard for the six-furlong Ancient Title Handicap against champion Kona Gold. They are last for a long time, last with just three sixteenths to run, and then Swept Overboard catches and passes Kona Gold to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

Ninth race, a new game, this one at nine furlongs on firm turf for allowance horses. Delahoussaye is on The Price Spirit, heavily favored but apparently not fully informed about the break. The gates open and the horse stumbles. His nose nearly hits the ground, yet somehow Delahoussaye stays in the saddle. They are last, of course, but it does not matter. The Price Spirit gets up to win by a length.

Now the 10th race, a not-so-grand 6 1/2-furlong finale, made up of 10 California-bred maiden claimers available for $32,000. Delahoussaye is riding Well Known Act, who has raced only at the fairs. He hops at the start, and when he comes down Well Known Act is last. Delahoussaye gradually worms his way through and around the field until he reaches the wire 1 1/2 lengths in front.

Such dramatic reminders are necessary in a game that prides itself on institutional amnesia. Delahoussaye turned 50 on Sept. 21, an age at which most athletes have turned into car salesmen or chronic banquet guests. What success he has these days is hard-earned, since he is no longer a regular in California's most powerful barns, and he tends to discourage East Coast business because of his antagonism toward air travel.

"It's not that I'm afraid to fly," Delahoussaye said. "I just don't like the feeling of having no control. And I know that's kind of stupid, because you really have no control over what these horses are going to do. But at least you feel like you do."

Delahoussaye has been milking the illusion for 33 years. Few riders of his caliber have maintained such an effective style for so long.

"Hnuh-hnuh-hnuh" is the sound Delahoussaye makes as his flat-backed profile emerges from the pack. Opposing riders hate to hear it, and they hate to see Eddie coming, his stick turned down, his elbows flapping sharp little encouragements as he pushes in perfect rhythm.

The Delahoussaye way has worked more than 6,000 times - twice in the Kentucky Derby, twice in the Belmont Stakes, and no fewer than seven times in Breeders' Cup competition, beginning with Princess Rooney in the inaugural Distaff. In fact, only five riders have won more Breeders' Cup races than Delahoussaye: Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, and Mike Smith.

This is significant because, for the first time in eight years, Delahoussaye could come away with another Breeders' Cup win. Maybe even two.

In addition to Swept Overboard in the Sprint, Delahoussaye is also booked to ride Tranquility Lake in the Distaff. She is the perfect tool for Delahoussaye, giving him a steady galloper who can be placed wherever he chooses.

"The only way she won't run good is if she doesn't like that track," Delahoussaye said, fearing a deep and sandy Belmont surface. "But they usually try to keep it pretty tight on that day."

The only other variable is Delahoussaye's health. While he has been blessed with a career relatively free of serious injuries, the trade-off has been chronic sinus trouble over the past 10 years, an affliction painful enough to bring even the toughest lumberjack to his knees.

Surgery helped alleviate Delahoussaye's problem, but the condition is recurring. Meanwhile, there are the other, more mundane physical setbacks of the game.

Delahoussaye went fishing for a little sympathy, even after his four Saturday wins. "That one horse who stumbled jarred me up pretty good," Delahoussaye said of The Price Spirit as he headed for the shower.

"I've got one to work at 6:30 tomorrow morning, so I think I'll go home and celebrate with an ibuprophen and a quiet evening."