01/17/2002 12:00AM

Bailey picks prime-time spots

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In the two months stretching between the Breeders' Cup at the end of October and the end of the Christmas holidays, Jerry Bailey figures he rode about 13 days. So much for his off-season.

The most significant day among those 13 came on Dec. 15, when he flew to Los Angeles to ride Siphonic in the Hollywood Futurity. What impressed him about the colt when they were third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile dazzled him even more the second time around when they won by 3 1/2 lengths, which is why Bailey will be back in California on Saturday to ride Siphonic in the Santa Catalina Stakes.

Bailey doesn't jump on an airplane just to enjoy the cuisine. It takes either a very good horse or a very big race to pry him away from the family. Obviously, with its $150,000 purse, the Santa Catalina does not qualify as a big race.

"If a horse is immature but has a lot of talent, you look for improvement each race," Bailey said Thursday from his south Florida home. "But this horse, even though he's lightly raced, impressed me as very intelligent from the first time I got on him. He doesn't need to improve very much in that aspect.

"That's pretty unusual," Bailey continued. "You find it more in sprinters than you do in horses that go a route. Horses that go long have a propensity to take a little longer to come around mentally. With this colt, I don't have to do a whole lot with him. It's not like I have to be afraid if dirt hits him in the face. It already happened to him in the Breeders' Cup, and he didn't go crazy."

Siphonic fits Bailey's specs for efficiency. There is no wasted motion to his stride.

"That's important," Bailey noted, "because you can't give anything away in these races. He's kind of middle-of-the-road as far as size goes, not real big or real little. Just well proportioned. You get a little scared when you see a huge, good-looking horse. Will he stay sound? Is he coordinated? And God forbid if you ever get one stopped."

Siphonic is a son of the South American runner Siphon, who spent part of his career in North America giving Bailey nothing but trouble. The summer of 1996 remains especially vivid.

"At least I know Siphonic's sire has quality," Bailey cracked. "He was kind of a thorn in my side, to be quite honest. Siphon got loose from Geri in the Hollywood Gold Cup and I never caught him. Then I pressed him too hard with Cigar in the Pacific Classic, and I got caught."

Shed not a tear, though. Bailey has done fine since then. His mounts earned more than $22 million last year, setting a record that is even daunting to the man who set it.

"I've thought about that a lot," Bailey said. "How could the next year be any better, or even the same? But that's not really important. What's important to me is to keep having fun and stay healthy. Like any athlete in any sport, you're only going to have a good year if you stay healthy. And it's not something you can set out to do."

Bailey eats light and healthy and weighs 111 pounds stripped. That's about three pounds more than he scaled 10 years ago, before a painful bout with kidney stones convinced him to drink more water and stay away from the sweat box. The last time he was hurt badly enough to miss more than 90 days of action was 1985, when he fractured three ribs, some vertebrae, and three bones in a foot.

At 44, Bailey could walk away from the game any time and consider himself a raging success. He is financially set, with two Kentucky Derby trophies, four wins in the Breeders' Cup Classic, three Dubai World Cups, and a place in the Hall of Fame. Yet he still feels the thrill of the chase, whether aboard a Derby prospect like Siphonic or riding the last race on a weekday at Gulfstream.

"Like yesterday," he said. "It was the only race I rode, a filly for Mott, and I expected her to win. She came from way back, and it was a full field, so I had to get through. That gets me excited, waiting back there, seeing if I can pull it off."

He did.

"It may be hard to understand," Bailey said. "But if your on one that's supposed to win and you loop the field and do it, that's not nearly as exciting as when you know you rode a good race, and maybe you made a difference."

Anyway, Bailey can't quit. It has been only the last year or so that his accomplishments have started to cross the radar of his 9-year-old son, Justin, although baseball is still tough competition.

"He got a Guinness Book of World Records," Bailey said. "And he was impressed that his dad was in there - for the earnings record, I suppose. I guess it was something he could tell his friends.

"Then last night we went to Joe's Stone Crabs for dinner with Don Zimmer and his wife," Bailey added. "For Justin, sitting next to a New York Yankee coach and asking him questions is way better than watching dad win a hundred-grander."