09/07/2001 12:00AM

A brother's misfortune turned inspiration

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POMONA, Calif. - Isaias Enriquez, just shy of 16 years old and standing on the threshold of his dream, came home one Saturday afternoon and knew immediately that something was wrong. He could see it on the faces of his parents, and he could tell by the way his father quietly told him that his brother, Umberto, had been hurt.

"Is it bad?" Enriquez asked.

"Very bad," he was told.

His brother was in a coma and partially paralyzed. It happened coming out of the starting gate at Caliente Racetrack in Mexico. Umberto Enriquez was the perennial leading rider at Caliente, and as soon as Isaias was old enough, he hoped to follow in his brother's footsteps. But now this - the grim reality of the profession, brought home in tragic terms. Isaias had to ask himself if he wanted to continue, to take the same chance. The answer came loud and clear.

More than ever.

The ending is hopeful, if not entirely happy. Umberto Enriquez emerged from his coma after 15 days, and through years of difficult therapy, he has regained much of the use of his right arm and right leg. He works today as a supervisor with the sports book at Caliente.

As for little brother Isaias, he is now a 10-year veteran who has plied his trade in both Chicago and California. His skills are on display right now at Fairplex Park, where the dangers of the game are magnified by hairpin turns that allow no room for error.

Enriquez comes across as anything but a daredevil. He has an open, accommodating face with the well-worn grin lines of a man whose glass is more than half full. He is 5-2 and 115 pounds, with a powerful upper body decorated with the scars and jagged collar bones of a true veteran.

"I don't worry about a few bones sticking out," he said, displaying one of them. "I'm not an underwear model."

He'll settle for leading rider at Fairplex. Last year at Fairplex, Enriquez finished third in the standings to Martin Pedroza and Tyler Baze. He sees no reason why he won't do as good, or better, this year.

"Riding on those turns, you have to go in with a strategy," Enriquez said earlier this week after wrapping up the Del Mar meet. "You have to have plan A, B and C. Then if none of those three work, you have to improvise."

Enriquez won four races during Del Mar, including a small stakes aboard the rapid Freespool, and his horses finished second or third 24 times, which at least means he was making the most of his opportunities. At Fairplex, in Pomona, his stock figures to improve.

"Pomona is an unpredictable track," Enriquez said. "Every single race, there's something going on. You have to have eyes like a fly - watching things all around you. You have to take more chances if you want to win, and you don't have much time to react. But you can definitely make things happen."

First impressions last, and the first time I noticed Enriquez was in the Fairplex paddock before a race, right after riders up. The paddock is a claustrophobic little pen, a perfect match for the racetrack.

Enriquez was doing fine until his horse spooked, lunged, then ducked left. The rider shot sideways to the right, executed a smooth triple barrel roll, and glided lightly to his feet. The judges gave him perfect 10's.

He laughed at the recollection. "When I was a kid, I went to a kind of junior army camp where we learned how to fall," he said. "Sometimes you have time to do that.

"But in the paddock, the horse is going about two miles per hour. When he's out there going 40 miles per hour, you don't have time to think about tucking your head, turning your shoulder, flipping over, and getting up. It's mostly luck and instinct. You can fall hard and not get hurt. Or like my brother, in his spill. He hit very soft. But he never got up."

Outside the Del Mar jockeys' room, Umberto Enriquez was waiting for his younger brother. Isaias was celebrating his 28th birthday the following day, and it was a good time to get together, before the 18 straight days of Fairplex racing began.

"My brother, he was a natural," Isaias said. "My style is a little more aggressive, but I'm always working on technique. When my dad was visiting from Mexico, we watched some tapes and he saw two mistakes I was making. One was the the way I was using my stick. The other was when I throw a cross and flap the reins. He said I need to keep contact with the horse's mouth to keep control.

"That's what happened to my brother. He had the reins loose, going for the lead, when a horse crossed in front of him. He said he had no chance. He went off like he was in a slingshot."

Enriquez paused, briefly considering the odds.

"It was - what - a one in a million chance? I would still do what he did. You're on a horse with speed, you've got to take the chance. Just because it happened to my brother, doesn't mean it's going to happen to me."