04/02/2002 12:00AM

Bailey returns to Texas a star

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - This story seems like many in the racing industry, at least at first.

A teenage boy, desperately hoping to become a jockey, can't seem to get the opportunity. Jockey agents question his desire and how long he will stick in the game. So the young man has little choice but to be represented at one point by his father - a dentist - who helps his son get started and pursue his dream.

Twenty-eight years and five Eclipse Awards later, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey and his father, Dr. James Bailey, can look back at those times and laugh.

No one expected him to become one of the most accomplished riders in the history of the sport, least of all Bailey.

"I thought [riding] seemed better than mowing lawns and paper routes," he said.

On Thursday, Bailey has four mounts on opening day of the Lone Star meet. For Bailey, who was born in nearby Dallas, this is something of a homecoming.

Bailey, who grew up in El Paso, won with his first mount, at Sunland Park, on a horse named Fetch on Nov. 4, 1974. Another win with his next mount followed, and the 17-year-old Texan was on his way.

He structured his high-school classes so he could gallop horses in the mornings, attend school, then ride on race days. His passion for racing was such that he did something few high school kids would think of doing: He worked ahead of schedule so he could graduate from Coronado High School in February, rather than with the rest of the class in May.

Despite putting such effort into his studies, Bailey clearly was headed to the racetrack.

"I had no visions of him becoming a dentist," said his father.

Neither did Jerry. He became attracted to racing as a young boy after watching horses owned by his father compete at Sunland Park, a small track in New Mexico that borders El Paso. Soon Bailey wanted to ride, and by the age of 12 he was exercising horses and riding in Quarter Horse match races in Texas, although not always with his father's consent.

In the summers of his early teen years, Bailey left home and galloped horses in New Mexico and Colorado. There he learned from J.J. Pletcher, father of trainer Todd Pletcher.

Yet when Bailey was ready to begin his riding career in the fall of 1974, the people at Sunland Park weren't quite ready for him. His father briefly acted as his jockey agent, and on another occasion, Bailey had to call a friend in Washington to come down and book mounts for him.

Although getting started initially was a struggle, Bailey looks back on those days at Sunland Park fondly, and even credits those circumstances for developing him as a rider.

"They must have had 75 jocks in the [jockeys'] room, when normally there might be 35 or 40," he said. "It was highly competitive, very difficult."

Bailey's mother, Betty, died in 1975, which, according to Dr. Bailey, hit his son hard. Around that time, Bailey enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso. But his college days lasted only a semester, and he went back to the track.

In the years that followed, Bailey rode everywhere from Illinois to Nebraska. Then in the 1980's, he moved to New York and his career took off.

Riding in his home state of Texas was never an option then. There was no Class 1 racing in the state until the mid-1990's, long after he had left the state and established himself on the New York-Florida circuit.

He returns to Texas periodically. Last year he rode in the All-Star Jockey Championship at Lone Star Park, near Dallas, winning it for the first time. Soon after winning, he was on the phone to his dad, whom he and his family had visited in New Mexico earlier in the week.

"He was really happy," Dr. Bailey said. "With as many races as he has won, you'd think it wouldn't be that big of a deal. But it was."

When Bailey rides at Lone Star Park on Thursday night, his father will be watching on television. He regularly watches his son's races on TVG, and views the simulcasts at Sunland Park - the track where Bailey's career began 28 years ago.

* Besides riding Lights on Broadway in the Premiere Stakes, Bailey will have three other mounts on the Thursday evening program: Lahinch for trainer Al Stall in race 3, and Kris's Sleigh and Far Away Bell for trainer Steve Asmussen in races 5 and 6.

Bailey will be in the paddock for an autograph session from 4:45 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Gates open at 4:30 p.m.