02/11/2004 1:00AM

Another dark day for racing


ARCADIA, Calif. - Mark Johnston's first reaction was self-preservation. After sailing through the air and landing hard on his right shoulder, he considered himself fortunate to be conscious enough to scramble beneath the inside rail, safe from the threat of trailing horses.

From that vantage point Johnston was able to sit up and survey the scene he'd left behind. Three horses were in various states of panic and trauma. Fellow jockey Jessica Endres was on her feet, in a daze. Mike Rowland, the other rider down, was prone on the track, and as far as Johnston could tell, it was bad.

"It's Mike," Johnston called out to Endres. "He's not moving." Then Johnston, overcome by a wave of dizzy nausea, eased himself back and let the world spin around.

The events of Turfway Park's seventh race on the evening of Feb. 4 are now part of racing's dark history. Rowland, a native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with 25 years of honorable service and 3,997 winners, died five days later in a Cincinnati hospital from head injuries sustained in his fall. He was 41.

On Wednesday morning, one week after the accident, Johnston was on a Kentucky highway, driving to Turfway Park, where a memorial service for Rowland would be held that afternoon. Actually, Johnston's mother was at the wheel, since the jockey was in no shape to operate both the steering wheel and his cell phone. Johnston suffered a fractured right collarbone in the fall.

"The break is out near the shoulder, which is kind of different," Johnston said. "I'd broken that collarbone before, which might explain it, since they say the fractured part calcifies and heals stronger than the rest of the bone. I'm in no pain, so healing up shouldn't be a problem. I've had a little dizziness, but I was real lucky that I didn't do any damage to my shoulder."

Lucky. There's that word again. The bullet dodged. The trip not taken.

The brick that falls from a building and lands on the spot where you were standing just moments ago. Johnston, with more than 3,000 victories of his own, has had his share of both good luck and bad. His memory of last week's disaster is agonizingly clear.

"Mike's horse broke down real bad," Johnston said. "He was doing a heckuva job trying to keep the horse up, but it was impossible. If he could have stayed up a couple more strides, I might have been able to sneak by on the inside.

"All I remember is the horse falling in my path," Johnston continued. "I don't remember seeing Mike at any point during the accident. I just remember going over the top of his horse, and thinking, 'Okay, maybe we'll make it over.' And my horse tried. Boy, he tried. They don't want to fall. But Mike's horse was laid out kind of sideways in my path."

In such a situation, there is no escape. There is only the very real prospect of a bad landing.

"When your horse stops like that, going 30 miles an hour, it's like you're in a slingshot, or a catapult," Johnston said. "I was thrown very high, and very far - which was fortunate for me, because I ended up a long way from the accident."

The first thing Johnston saw, when he could focus at all, was Rowland, lying still.

"It was eerie," Johnston said. "I had a real bad feeling. I've been in accidents before that looked so bad it was amazing any of us walked away. Making it, or not making it, is only a matter of inches."

Johnston made it. Mike Rowland did not, and because of that, the pall of survivor's guilt is always present.

"I spent time at the hospital with Mike's wife, Tammy," Johnston said. "She helped me more than I helped her.

"For a couple of days I was worried about how this was going to affect me," he added. "But now I feel like I'm back on my feet. I wish I could ride tonight. It's what I do, and I love it. If it happened to me, I know that's how Mike would feel. I know he wants me to ride."

Johnston is a 33-year-old Kentucky boy who gave Southern California a brief try last year. He got to know Rowland when both men rode in Maryland, although Rowland made his impact as perennial leader at Thistledown in Ohio, while Johnston rose to the top ranks on the Mid-Atlantic circuit. When they both ended up at Turfway this winter, it was an opportune reunion.

"Mike loved to ride," Johnston said. "He was a good rider and a great person. Always smiling, joking around, it was impossible not to like him. I have a lot of very good memories of Mike."

One of them will forever be their last social encounter, a recent dinner with Rowland, his wife, and his 8-year-old daughter, Sara.

"Little Sara wants to be a jockey," Johnston said. "Mike was talking about her getting on the Equicizer, and she was talking about her dad riding. They both just lit up. It was so cool to see that interaction - you could tell that Mike was Sara's hero.

"And you know," Johnston said, "he still is."