03/07/2003 12:00AM

Big time beckons once again

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NEW ORLEANS - On a December evening in 1999, Lenny Pike went sprinting around the Fair Grounds offtrack betting parlor, letting out victory whoops. Pike, a jockey agent, had just watched his rider, Robby Albarado, win the Hollywood Futurity on Captain Steve.

The rich Grade 1 win was big in itself, but Albarado's victory carried greater implications. Bob Baffert had brought Albarado to California to ride a Kentucky Derby hopeful, and Albarado had won. For a young rider trying to crack the nation's elite, this was a major push.

"And the next thing you know, we got the crunch," Pike said.

Despite the win, Albarado was replaced by Jerry Bailey for Captain Steve's next start. Albarado eventually regained the mount and rode Captain Steve to a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but in the two years since, Albarado hasn't gotten another similar chance.

For the time, Albarado had hit his ceiling, but now, at age 29, he may be closer than ever to breaking through it. Albarado leads the Fair Grounds jockey standings by a comfortable margin, and early this week ranked sixth nationally in earnings and third in wins. Albarado won two rich stakes races here last weekend - both for trainer Neil Howard and owner Will Farish - including the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap with Mineshaft, who rapidly is developing into one of the country's top handicap horses.

The icing could come Sunday, when Albarado rides the undefeated Badge of Silver in the Louisiana Derby. A win would carry Albarado one step closer to the Kentucky Derby, this time with a first-tier prospect he figures to ride all the way through.

"I think he's staying on this one," said Ronny Werner, Badge of Silver's trainer.

Albarado's place among the Midwestern elite is secure. Along with Pat Day, Albarado gets his pick of many of the best horses in Kentucky. But Albarado wants more.

"I've been happy where my career's been at for seven or eight years," Albarado said. "But you'd like to get the good horses all the time," he said, citing Prado and Jerry Bailey as riders who do. "Once you get to the next level, you're there. I feel like it can eventually happen for me."

Injuries have slowed Albarado's march to the top. Albarado has been involved in several nasty spills, including a couple of scary falls on his head, and he said a broken pelvis suffered in an accident at Keeneland in 2000 "was the toughest thing. Those things have made me pay more attention to my health."

Albarado is injury-free now and riding with confidence. "Right now, I feel like I'm being a lot more patient that ever before," he said. "The confidence level I have in New Orleans is really high."

Riding live horses can do that, and Howard has put Albarado on all his live ones at this meet.

"Robby brings three things: demeanor, demeanor, demeanor," Howard said. "He's got a mature, congenial demeanor about him. There are a lot of emotions in this game, but he manages to keep them in check and stay the same. Robby can come back and tell you something about a horse in a gentlemanly fashion."

Werner began riding Albarado two years ago, when he sent out his first wave of 2-year-old winners at the Keeneland meet.

"Some big-name name riders don't always believe in you when you put them on babies," Werner said. "But Robby always believed in me and the babies he rode. That's number one - the rider has to believe. And Robby, he's fearless. If a rider ever shows he's scared, he's not for me. You can't have any of that in your mind."

Albarado recalls driving to Keeneland from Louisville last April to work several sets of unraced 2-year-olds for Werner. "He saved Badge of Silver for last," Albarado said. "When we got out on the track, Ronny said, 'This is the heat, right here.' "

Badge of Silver won his debut at Keeneland by nine lengths, "and I never even touched him," said Albarado.

Albarado grows visibly animated when he talks about Badge of Silver: "His first work down here this winter - wow. He grew, he got stronger. He's such a smart horse and so responsive to everything. This horse is so young to be doing what he's doing."

What he might be doing is taking Albarado to his next level.