06/28/2007 11:00PM

Bravo nears 4,000

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Reaching 4,000 wins seemed an impossible dream for Joe Bravo when he suffered a broken back in a spill on opening day of the 2006 meet at Gulfstream Park.

"I definitely thought that was it," Bravo said. "I thought there was no shot I could come back. Doctors were talking about surgery, putting rods in my back."

Bravo was able to recover with only physical therapy and amazingly rebounded to win a record 12th title at Monmouth Park last summer.

One year later, Bravo again sits atop the Monmouth standings, and the 4,000th career victory is within reach. He had 3,993 heading into Friday's card.

"It's quite an accomplishment," Bravo said. "Not many riders get to reach that milestone. With injuries in the last couple of years, it's just nice to be back to work."

In addition to the back injury, Bravo overcame a spate of mishaps in recent seasons.

He missed half of the 2001 Monmouth season with a broken leg and most of 2002 with a broken wrist. In 2003, he chipped a vertebra on opening night of the Meadowlands meet. Bravo won the 2005 Monmouth title despite missing seven weeks with a broken collarbone.

The 4,000-win milestone is a reminder that you aren't a kid anymore. Bravo, 35, won his first race in 1988.

"When you start out riding, you just go race by race," Bravo said. "It's exciting to just be out there doing this. It's a lot of years and it doesn't seem that long. If time flies when you're having fun, I guess I had a lot of fun the last 19 years. I can't believe it's been that long."

Bravo, the most successful rider in Monmouth history, has taken stabs at riding elsewhere. Every summer, the lure of the Jersey Shore proved irresistible.

"If I was the richest man in the world, there are only two places in the country I'd want to live during the summer," Bravo said. "One is the Hamptons, the other is the Jersey Shore. Since the Hamptons don't have a racetrack, I'm blessed to work in a place this nice."

Monmouth will host the Breeders' Cup for the first time this October and Bravo would love to participate at his home track.

"I just hope that I can," Bravo said. "I'm riding for some really top trainers like Christophe Clement, Bill Mott, and Patrick Biancone. They have that type of horse. I hope as we get closer, they give me a call."

Cherokee Jewel makes '07 debut

Cherokee Jewel is also a Breeders' Cup hopeful.

Trainer Tim Hills is pointing the 4-year-old for the new $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint.

"Otherwise, we won't be able to get any good seats," Hills said jokingly. "We want the front row."

Cherokee Jewel faces an important test Sunday: the $60,000 Klassy Briefcase Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf. She makes her season debut in her second grass start.

"We have to get a race into her," Hills said. "She ran really well in her turf race on a tight course."

Cherokee Jewel missed by a head in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in her second career start on April 7, 2006.

In her final preparation for the Klassy Briefcase, Cherokee Jewel worked four furlongs in 51.60 seconds over Monmouth's turf course on June 24.

"She handled it just fine," Hills said.

Cherokee Jewel ran well here last summer, winning first- and second-level allowance races as springboards to a victory in the Capote Belle Stakes at Saratoga.

Hills planned to have her back in action sooner, but couldn't find a spot at Gulfstream over the winter. The comeback was further delayed when Cherokee Jewel suffered an ankle injury.

Completing the field are Haddie Be Good, Pure Disco, Serena's Cat, Spanish Lullaby, and Brassy Boots. Livermore Valley is entered for the main track only.