05/12/2005 12:00AM

Bravo eats some crow after riding Derby rabbit

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Monmouth Park honors Joe Bravo with the ultimate tribute on May 28. Every fan attending that day gets a bobblehead doll of the track's 10-time riding champion.

The collectable has become a major status symbol throughout the sports world.

It is also a fitting promotional item as Bravo recovers from a verbal bobble prior to the Kentucky Derby.

Bravo had his first Derby mount on Spanish Chestnut, who set a fast early pace that, some people thought, was supposed to set up Bandini. Both horses are owned by Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.

In the days leading up to the race, Bravo downplayed the Derby as just another race. He told everyone within earshot that the $6 million for the Dubai World Cup mattered more than the $2 million Derby.

Riding the Derby was an epiphany for Bravo, who now understands that nothing equals the Derby experience.

"I have to apologize to everyone I told that the Derby was just another race," Bravo said. "I've got to eat my words. Looking back, that was stupid on my part. Now I understand what everybody was saying."

And now the mission has changed. Bravo has his sights set on getting back to the Derby on a horse with a more realistic chance.

"My dream has changed and winning the Derby is now my number one goal," Bravo said. "I want to spend the summer, the fall, and winter finding a horse that can bring me there again. Next time, I wanted to be the tiger, not the rabbit."

Bravo said he found himself in the role of rabbit in the Derby, and that was hard to accept.

"When I got there and found out I had to be the rabbit for Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, it really hit me hard," Bravo said. "But any time you're on their team, you're playing in the right field."

That ownership team, along with trainer Patrick Biancone, gave Bravo the biggest win of his career last season on Lion Heart in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth.

Lukas back after long absence

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has a division at Monmouth for the first time since 2000.

Sebastian Nicholl will oversee the barn of about 30 runners that he describes as "as a nice mixture of 2-year-olds and up."

Nicholl cautions that Monmouth's limited schedule of racing weekends only through May could hamper his barn in the early stages.

"Some of my horses might not be as forward as some of the stable's horses at Churchill Downs or Belmont Park," Nicholl said. "They have more racing days at the moment."

Nicholl, who hails from England, has worked for Lukas for three years and has already been assigned to Santa Anita, Oaklawn, Arlington Park, Gulfstream Park, and Churchill Downs.

"I've been everywhere," Nicholl said. "I'm getting to see the country."

McCauley back on the scene

You can take the rider out of the saddle but it was hard to take the jockey out of "Hollywood" Herb McCauley.

Seven years after his last ride and five operations later on a left leg shattered in a spill, McCauley has reluctantly come to grips with the fact he will never ride again.

It was a blow for a longtime fixture on the New Jersey circuit who was, at one time, the all-time leading rider at The Meadowlands, and rode 3,049 winners in his career.

"I went through a bout of depression because I still wanted to ride every day," McCauley said. "I couldn't accept the way it ended and I couldn't find a way to go forward."

It took a long time for McCauley to realize that a part of his life had ended.

"I don't think I ever decided it was over," McCauley said. "It's just something I accept.

"Time doesn't heal all or cure all, but it can separate things to where you can move on, and it's time for me to move on."

McCauley, 47, hopes to return to racing.

"I'm looking to re-enter the racehorse business," said McCauley. "I would like to work with industry leaders at racetracks or as a stable manager or a bloodstock agent."

In short, McCauley is open to any opportunity that keeps him in the sport.

"Nothing in horse racing comes easy," McCauley said. "You usually have to earn it the hard way."

McCauley, while acknowledging that he won't ride competitively again, plans to gallop a few horses some morning just to see how the leg responds.

"I just want to see what my body can stand," McCauley said. "If the leg holds up,

I would still like to test one now and again."