07/22/2001 11:00PM

Bailey's not in usual starting spot

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Jerry Bailey set a track record with 50 wins last summer en route to his sixth Saratoga riding title in the last seven years.

But despite his dominance here and despite a North American-leading $12.8 million in purse earnings this year and second-best 33 stakes wins, Bailey finds himself feeling a bit vulnerable heading into Wednesday's opening of the Saratoga meet.

"This year is going to be a little different," Bailey said. "I don't think I've had as strong a Belmont meet as I usually have. Usually, you need to kind of finish out strong to have a lot of momentum going into Saratoga. I was gone so much I never got untracked. I think I got my work cut out at Saratoga."

Evidence that Bailey was being serious was on display Monday morning at Saratoga. Bailey, who rode at Delaware Park over the weekend, was busy at the barns seeking mounts. He breezed Hempstead Handicap winner Critical Eye, whom he will ride for trainer Scott Schwartz in Sunday's Go for Wand Handicap.

Bailey missed 11 days, or 20 percent, of the Belmont spring/summer meeting, primarily because of riding engagements at other venues. He finished fifth in the rider standings with 37 winners from 160 mounts. His .23 winning percentage was the best among riders who finished in the top 10.

Last year, Bailey won the Belmont spring title with 66 wins from 171 mounts, a phenomenal .385 winning percentage. Bailey said it gave him "a tremendous edge" heading into Saratoga, where he won 10 stakes and finished 13 wins ahead of Jorge Chavez.

This year, Bailey sees John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, and Richard Migliore as having the momentum heading into the 36-day meet. Velazquez won the Belmont title with 66 wins, edging Prado by one.

Bailey acknowledged that he won't be riding as many horses as his rivals, and some of his mounts for big stakes, such as Perfect Sting and Include, are out.

"At this stage of my career, I want to ride some good horses," said Bailey, who turns 44 on Aug. 29. "I don't concentrate on how many horses I ride as much as I do the quality. It's a Catch-22. If you don't ride a fair amount of horses, you're going to lose some winners and thus people are going to use other guys."

Bailey still has an edge because he is the first-call rider for Bill Mott, who has won or shared seven of the last nine Saratoga training titles. Mott figures to be loaded again this year. Bailey said he sees only two days when he will miss time at Saratoga - the Arlington Million (Aug. 18) and possibly the Pacific Classic (Aug. 19).

Given the makeup of the jockey colony, one might think it would be easier for Bailey this season. There is no Shane Sellers, Jose Santos, or Mike Luzzi (all injured), and Mike Smith has gone to California. Donnie Meche and Mark Guidry will join the colony for the first time but are unlikely to take business away from Bailey.

"I think it's a misconception," Bailey said. "It may be different guys there, but somebody's going to be a threat."

Bailey said he doesn't even think about matching Angel Cordero's feat of 11 Saratoga titles in 13 years. Nor does he believe he can match his own 50 victories from a year ago.

"All the record means is that I've done it," he said. "It doesn't mean I can do it again."