06/20/2001 11:00PM

Breaking in is hard to do, Smith finds


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A sense of relief was on jockey Mike Smith's face as he guided Lift Off into the winner's circle of the ninth race at Hollywood Park last Sunday.

The race may have only been a maiden claimer at the end of the day, but the victory marked two milestones for Smith. It was the 4,000th win of his 19-year career and the first time he had doubled since he moved to California in May.

Nearly four years had passed since Smith had last ridden two winners at Hollywood Park. On that occasion, Skip Away won the 1997 Breeders' Cup Classic and Ajina won the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Sunday's paycheck was worth a fraction of that, but it still meant a lot to the 35-year-old Smith.

"Since I just came here and I'm just getting started, it was special," Smith said.

For more than a month, Smith has been trying to revive a career that includes eight wins on Breeders' Cup Day, a Preakness win on Prairie Bayou in 1993, and two Eclipse Awards in the early 1990's as the nation's outstanding jockey.

In the last two years, injuries have slowed his career and led to his move to Southern California, one of the toughest jockey rosters in the world.

"You're not going to come in here, as established as it is, and take over," he said. "I'm in for the long haul as long as things look forward."

Despite his success last weekend, which also included a victory Saturday on Sleeping Weapon, a Godolphin-owned 2-year-old, Smith faces a difficult battle to become established in California. He is trying to join Garrett Gomez and Victor Espinoza as jockeys who have successfully made the transition to California in the last five years. Conversely, he is hoping to avoid a repeat of what happened to Joe Bravo, the top rider in New Jersey, and Yutaka Take, Japan's leading jockey, who failed to catch on in recent years and left.

Gomez, who has won the Californian Stakes and Pacific Classic in the last year on Skimming, understands what Smith faces.

"You have to take about two huge steps back to level out somewhere and be comfortable with what you're doing," said Gomez, who arrived in 1997. "There are a lot of guys who are loyal to their jockeys. You have to set yourself up for a culture shock. It's a whole different ball game."

A native of New Mexico, Smith was in the racing spotlight for much of the 1990's. A back injury at Saratoga in 1998, just days after he rode Coronado's Quest to victory in the Travers, slowed his career trajectory. He finished third in the 1999 Kentucky Derby on Cat Thief, but last year did not take his customary spot in the top 10 standings for earnings. He rode in Florida, Kentucky, and New York, but the major mounts were not as plentiful.

"I thought everywhere I went I had the world by the rear end," he said. "I did struggle for awhile. It was the first time I had to say, 'Damn! What's going on?' I never had to do that before. I'm fortunate to be a little older and realize what it will take to come back."

In his first month in California, live mounts were scarce. Much of his time was spent campaigning in the barns, introducing himself to trainers who knew him largely by reputation. It helped that his agent, Brian Beach, worked in Southern California in the late 1990's.

"I talked to some people before I came out, but they're not going to turn them all over to me," he said. "They've given me the opportunity to get on horses in the morning. I have to make things happen in the afternoon. Everything in the afternoons starts in the morning."

Through Wednesday, Smith had five winners at Hollywood Park. He has ridden for a variety of trainers, including Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale. For Drysdale, Smith finished second in the Shoemaker Mile on Touch of the Blues, a mount he will have for the American Handicap on July 4.

"I'd say he'll stick," Drysdale said. "When Del Mar comes around, he'll be in the swing of things. This is a tough circuit to break into."

Smith is making no predictions for Del Mar. A top 10 finish would be considered a success as well as finding a few mounts for the Breeders' Cup, a day that has defined his career.

"I was so fortunate," he said, reflecting on the 1990's. "When you get a taste of it, you want it back. I want to be back."