04/28/2005 12:00AM

Bailey aims spotlight at self


NEW YORK - Jerry Bailey's autobiography, "Against the Odds: Riding for My Life," published last week, breaks perfectly from the gate, proceeds at a sensible pace, makes a winning move turning for home, and holds on despite wandering a bit through deep stretch.

The problem with most memoirs by active athletes is that their authors, especially if approaching retirement, are reluctant to tell scandalous tales or burn any bridges to a game in which they would like to find a second career. There are few unflattering portraits of racetrackers in these 223 pages, much less any earth-shaking revelations about racing. This is no mere recitation of pleasant memories, though, because Bailey turns an unusually harsh spotlight on one subject - himself, as an unpleasant and abusive alcoholic until he took his last drink in 1989.

"I had hit rock bottom," are the book's first words, and by page two he characterizes his marriage in those days in unflinching terms: "Through slurred speech, I would abuse her verbally, psychologically, often until she fled the house for long, tearful drives into the night."

Bailey's biggest edge as a rider, then and now, has been his study and mental preparation. (An avid student of past performances, he served as a paid spokesman for Daily Racing Form from 2001 to 2003.)

"If you look at most riders," he writes, "their physical attributes are pretty much the same. The mental aspect is what separates us. I was always confident that if I could not outride most of my rivals, I could outthink them."

When he was drinking - though he says he never rode under the influence - he became known as a "two o'clock jock" who was often hungover in the mornings and preferred to ride only the late races on the card. When friends and family finally steered him toward Alcoholics Anonymous and sobriety, he belatedly developed the patience and confidence to complement his intelligence, and his career went to an entirely new level.

The middle of the book chronicles his ascent as a rider in the 1990's, when he won four Triple Crown races and four Breeders' Cup Classics in a five-year span, with Hansel, Sea Hero, Grindstone, Black Tie Affair, Arcangues, Concern, and Cigar. Horseplayers may find that reliving many of those races in the most entertaining part of this book. Bailey and his co-author, USA Today sportswriter Tom Pedulla, do an excellent job of recreating races. The stories are genuine and Bailey, while a better than average handicapper, freely fesses up to trying his best to find a better Derby mount than Sea Hero and to regrettably picking Irgun (didn't run) over Go for Gin in 1994 and Tejano Run (second) over Thunder Gulch the next year.

Fans of Cigar will treasure this book because Bailey devotes nearly 50 pages to the sport's richest racehorse and his relationship with him. Bailey's general lack of mushy sentiment about horses makes his attachment to Cigar, who clearly was much more than a meal ticket to him, all the more compelling. The Cigar material is so strong that it makes it easier to overlook the comparatively scant treatment of the last few years, including the very curious omission of any discussion of his relationship with Bobby Frankel and their record-setting successes together.

He does, however, write about the dramatic conclusions to the last two Triple Crowns. His observations may not be popular with newcomers seduced by the manufactured deification of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, but they are absolutely on the mark. He thinks one reason both horses came up short in the Belmont is that they were ridden hard to unnecessarily large margins of victory in the Preakness; that Empire Maker was simply a better horse than Funny Cide; and that Smarty Jones's rider should have lined up a few other mounts at Belmont to familiarize himself with the unique track and the dangers of moving too early over it.

Less successful is the book's closing chapter, a catch-all of brief observations and opinions about various issues in the sport. While it is commendable that he mentions them at all, matters such as illegal medication require more than a bland sentence or two to have much impact. An argument that racing's salvation lies in promoting jockeys rather than horses is too self-serving to be credible. Still, it is hard to argue with his sensible cases for raising the scale of weights, improving medical coverage for riders, and discouraging track management from souping up their racing surfaces into unnatural "concrete freeways" on big race days.

Bailey has not always been the most lovable figure in racing, sometimes regarded as being overly cool and arrogant, but this book softens some of those edges while reinforcing the good part of that characterization: All these years, he may well have been the smartest guy in the room. That has paid off nicely not only for himself but also for the people who have ridden him and bet on him.