04/02/2003 12:00AM

Arriaga rebuilds his life one day at a time


SAN MATEO, Calif. - It took barely one second for Jose Arriaga's life to change forever on April 4, 2002.

Arriaga, 25, had just finished second in the Golden Gate Fields jockey standings. It was only the second day of the Bay Meadows meeting as he rode Mother Fear, an $8,000 claimer, in the fifth race. He was sitting in good position on the far turn when his mount unexpectedly propped and ducked out, tossing him to the track.

Nobody is sure exactly what happened next, whether Sassy Linda, who was moving up behind him, clipped his head when she tried to jump over him or he was simply injured from the fall.

"I remember riding in the race," Arriaga said, "but after the race, I don't remember anything."

By the time he reached Stanford Hospital on the Stanford University campus about 15 miles from Bay Meadows, Arriaga was not breathing and in a "full code" situation, meaning all available procedures were used to resuscitate him.

Surgery was performed to drain blood from his brain and a small portion of the temporal lobe was removed.

Although surgeons saved his life, they could make no promises about what the future held or even when Arriaga would come out of his coma.

Arriaga amazed doctors by coming out of his coma the morning after surgery. Barely three weeks after his surgery, Arriaga was released to an adaptive living facility to begin a full rehabilitation process.

One year after the fall, Arriaga's recovery continues.

He lives at home in Richmond, near Golden Gate Fields. He takes classes at the Berkeley adult education center. He is licensed to drive his car again.

"This is another big step," he said. "Before, I was like handicapped. I couldn't do anything. I had to depend on everyone else. Now I'm able to go any place I want to go."

Arriaga was a frequent visitor at Golden Gate Fields, spending time in the backstretch kitchen and jockey room, where he displayed an uncanny ability to beat all comers in a multi-deck version of poker. He jokes he makes as much money playing cards as he did riding horses.

As remarkable as Arriaga's recovery has been, it has not been easy.

What was expected to be a one-month stay in the adaptive living facility was extended three months.

Arriaga said he has never been frustrated by his rate of progress and admitted that going to the adaptive living facility was the best thing for him.

"I started walking good, exercising, playing sports, talking to people. It was the best thing to happen to me," he said. "My mind started going the right way, and everything came around."

Arriaga has strengthened his right arm and leg, which had been weakened by the trauma of the fall and surgery. His language skills are coming along as well.

Most importantly, although he remains on medication, he has suffered no seizures, which often follow serious brain injuries.

He realizes he will never ride again, however.

"I love horses, but I won't ride," he said. "I just want to live life. God gave me another chance to stay alive. I can do something else."