10/24/2004 11:00PM

Bailey is back - but for how long?

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Ted Williams in his final at-bat hit a home run, ran into the dugout, and never came out to doff his cap, despite the cheers of the Fenway Park crowd. But Willie Mays extended his career well beyond his prime, and it ended ingloriously with the Mets.

It is difficult for an elite athlete to know when to say when. The factors to be weighed include family obligations, financial considerations, and a sheer love of their sport. In racing, many jockeys who think they are done miss it greatly and return. Others, like Chris McCarron, walk away and never look back.

For the past two years, Jerry Bailey has contemplated his exit strategy. He is 47, financially secure, with a wife and son who put no pressure on him to do anything other than what he wants to do. The Hall of Fame rider has won a record seven Eclipse Awards as champion jockey. He has won the Kentucky Derby twice. He has won 14 Breeders' Cup races, more than any other rider.

At the Eclipse Awards dinner last winter, Bailey hinted strongly that this might be his final year. With the Breeders' Cup coming up this Saturday at Lone Star Park, the question has risen again: Is this it for Bailey?

"I don't think I'm going to be able to answer that this month or the next," Bailey said from his home in Florida. "I'm kind of like a pitcher who gets a series of one-year contracts. If I feel good, I'll do it again. I really can't blame people for bringing it up, because I opened the door at the Eclipse Awards. I had passed a kidney stone three hours before, so I wasn't in the best frame of mind, but I was lucid enough to know I'm not going to do this forever.

"If not on top, I want to go out close to it. The question is, how far do you push the envelope? I still like riding good horses. There's two things that keep a guy like me going - the Breeders' Cup and the Triple Crown. In between, you're trying to accumulate the horses for those races."

Bailey has hoarded several outstanding horses for Saturday's Breeders' Cup, including defending race winners Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic and Six Perfections in the Mile. He is fifth nationally this year in purse earnings, despite missing five weeks with a fractured wrist. Prior to that, Bailey this summer became the all-time winningest rider at Saratoga. If he's not as good as ever, he's damn close.

"He's a great rider and a perfect fit for the horse," said trainer Richard Mandella, who selected Bailey to replace the injured Alex Solis on Pleasantly Perfect.

Bailey said he didn't lose much fitness while recuperating from his fractured wrist. He said the desire to ride never wavered.

"All I concentrated on was getting back for the Breeders' Cup," he said. "I have so many nice horses to ride. I really missed riding good horses. You work your whole career to ride good horses, and then to see them win because you're not able to ride them made me miss it. I'm just enjoying being back in the ballgame the past couple of weeks."

The time off did allow Bailey to spend more time with his wife, Suzee, 46, and their son, Justin, 11. They keep a year-round home in Florida. Bailey rides there in the winter, but in the spring he is in Kentucky and the rest of the year in New York. Suzee and Justin are in New York when school is out, but the rest of the time, Bailey flies home every Sunday night, then flies north every Wednesday morning.

"The people I work for have been nice about it," Bailey said of his schedule. "I have not missed a Monday or Tuesday with Justin. He's pretty understanding about it. But the deciding factor for me is - is two days enough?"

Bailey said his wife and son have never pressured him to retire.

"They've left it up to me," he said. "They don't want to be the ones who pull the plug. You've got to be ready yourself, or it's not going to work."

But how does an athlete of his caliber know when to pull the plug? Bailey has talked to former riders, and other athletes, about the process. He spoke with former catcher Gary Carter and former basketball center Robert Parrish, and he quizzed John McEnroe when Bailey appeared on McEnroe's eponymous television show.

"Everyone has pretty much given me the same answer - you'll know when you're ready," Bailey said.

Right now, "I'm psyched about the Breeders' Cup," Bailey said. "It's not going to be how much I miss it after being back for five weeks. It's going to be in November or December, when things are anticlimactic."

That is when Bailey will know if he will give himself another contract for 2005.