01/04/2005 1:00AM

Arroyo gets his second chance

Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. wins aboard Bank Audit in the Interborough.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Two years ago this week, Norberto Arroyo Jr. was sitting in a Long Island, N.Y., jail cell with plenty of time to think about a once-promising career gone awry.

"All you do in there is think," said Arroyo, who served 39 days for a second-degree assault conviction stemming from a pool hall fight in June 2002. "You have nothing else to do."

What Arroyo thought about most was getting another chance to prove himself as a top-flight jockey. It has taken almost two years, but Arroyo is making the most of a second chance afforded him by the New York racing community.

Through the first month of Aqueduct's inner-track meet, Arroyo is the second-leading rider, with 22 wins from 126 mounts. He has had six multiple-win days from the first 19 inner-track cards. He won four races on Dec. 11 and three on Jan. 2, including the stakes both days.

Arroyo's success is reminiscent of five years ago, when he arrived from Boston as a hot apprentice. He was New York's leading rider in 2000 with 188 victories and was the runner-up in the Eclipse Award voting for top apprentice rider. But Arroyo was unable to handle the success then. He says he is capable of handling it now.

"I'm a lot more mature now," said Arroyo, now 28. "I recognize the success now, [the importance] of having a lot more class, which I always recognized, but sometimes you let yourself go for other things. I grew up in the streets, and most of the people I know around the track grew up in the streets. My success caught me by surprise, going from nothing straight to the top and then hitting bottom again. I didn't know how to handle it."

The same aggressive nature that helped Arroyo be successful on the track led him astray off of it. He had run-ins with a trainer at Belmont and a Pinkerton at Saratoga. In 2001, he, his brother, and father - a former sparring partner of former lightweight champion Roberto Duran - allegedly beat up a livery cab driver in the Bronx when the driver came too close to them with his car. Arroyo was charged with assault but the charges were dismissed.

On June 9, 2002, just hours after the Belmont Stakes was run, Arroyo beat up three people in a pool hall with a pool cue. Arroyo was convicted of second-degree assault.

Though he won 108 races in 2002, Arroyo's career quickly spiraled downward. Four months after getting out of jail, he suffered a broken neck in a spill and was out four months. Arroyo struggled in the first half of 2004 before he sat down and had a heart-to-heart conversation with trainer Steve Klesaris.

"He had a great amount of success early on; he made some mistakes like all of us do," Klesaris said. "I told him during our conversation that everybody's been where you're at, and everybody deserves a second chance. It's what you make of your second chance and how you make it count."

Arroyo had been thinking of moving his tack to Delaware Park, and Klesaris convinced him to do just that. Riding for Klesaris and a slew of New York trainers such as Kiaran McLaughlin, Nick Zito, and Christophe Clement, Arroyo won 42 races from 293 mounts and finished second or third 110 times.

"I thought, let me get out of here and see if they give me a shot and I'm going to do my best to show them I can still ride," Arroyo said.

Klesaris said he believes Arroyo has simply grown up.

"He went from being a young kid to being a young adult," Klesaris said. "I think he's made a great transformation. He rides a smarter race, and I think he's more polished today."

Arroyo and Greg Martin have teamed up for six winners at the meet. Martin has been so impressed with Arroyo that he said, "There's not a rider I would use besides him."

Fellow jockey Richard Migliore says Arroyo "is in a good place right now." The trick, Migliore said, is to sustain the momentum for an extended period.

"He always had talent, but I've seen a lot of guys with talent come and go," Migliore said. "It takes a certain constitution mentally and physically to do this over a long period of tome. A lot of guys don't possess that. I definitely like what I see right now. He sees it's better to do things the way he's doing it right now."

Arroyo credited his fianc?e, Tara Nieminski, and his 9-year-old daughter, Kiara, for helping to change his personal life, and his new agent, Chuck Delpetro, for getting him going professionally.

"I want to thank him for what he's doing for me," Arroyo said. "I hope we can continue it."

Arroyo said he wants the opportunity to show he can compete with the likes of Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, and Edgar Prado on a daily basis.

"I've done it before, I'm looking forward to doing it again," Arroyo said. "I just need the opportunity."