02/19/2002 12:00AM

Bailey takes honor for record-setting year

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - His storybook career has reached such incredible heights that even Jerry Bailey himself can hardly believe it.

"I am so blessed, so fortunate," Bailey said Monday before receiving his record-tying fifth Eclipse Award as top jockey. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself. To be honest, when one year comes to an end, I really don't expect the next year to be as good, but then it seems like everything comes together again."

Bailey, 44, set an all-time record for earnings in 2001, with his mounts earning $22,597,720. Although he did not win a Triple Crown race and won just one Breeders' Cup event - the Sprint aboard Squirtle Squirt - Bailey won just about everything else, including the world's richest race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup in March. Overall, Bailey won 44 graded stakes, including 14 Grade 1's.

Even without the Dubai purse, and even though he rode sparingly following the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup, Bailey's mounts easily earned more than his closest pursuers. Bailey surpassed the earnings record by more than $3 million set in 1999 by Gary Stevens.

"I don't know if there was one outstanding thing," he said. "I'd have to say Dubai, even though Captain Steve never came back as good as he was that night. Winning the Breeders' Cup for Bobby Frankel was great, too. Lido Palace and Aptitude were nice. I rode a lot of really good horses."

Bailey's agent, Ron Anderson, said he believes the jockey can set yet another record this year.

"There are no flaws in his armor," said Anderson. "I never go home at night thinking, 'If he'd only done this or said that,' or anything like that. I never have to worry about him being overweight. You can tell him about working a horse three weeks from now, and you don't have to tell him again. He'll be there. He just does everything the right way."

Bailey said he hopes to continue on his uncanny roll "for at least a couple more years. I still enjoy the thrill of riding a good horse and the thrill of competition.

"But I also have a family," he said of his wife, Suzee, and son, Justin, "and all the traveling can make things difficult to balance your family and career. Fortunately they've been very understanding."

Bailey, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, previously won the Eclipse in 1995, 1996, 1997, and 2000. Laffit Pincay Jr. is the only other rider to have won the Eclipse for top jockey five times. A native of Dallas, Bailey began riding in 1974 before his career began to skyrocket in the early 1990's. He has won the Breeders' Cup Classic four times, the Kentucky Derby twice.

After accepting his Eclipse from Miami radio host Hank Goldberg, Bailey told the dinner crowd that "it has been written before that I'm not happy because I'm doing good. I'm doing good because I'm happy. That has to do with my family."