09/11/2002 12:00AM

Bullring time for Gonzo

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The image of a bullring rider is mixed, especially at five-furlong Fairplex Park, which exists in the shadow of the big time.

Bullring jockeys can be cagey veterans, a cut below the superstars, raking in the dough while guys like Pincay, Stevens, and Desormeaux take a holiday. They can be hot young guns, fresh in from the hills, trying to make a mark that will take them to the next level.

Then sometimes, just for a change of pace, the county fair will attract a sophisticated South American, a champion in his own land, whose style suggests sweeping grass tracks and vast, urban racing emporiums. Hardly a Fairplex kind of guy.

But don't tell that to the trainers and owners who employ Goncalino Feijo Almeida. They have been rewarded, over and over, with rides that defy the whoop-dee-do of the bullring. Cool as shaved ice, answering to his nickname of Gonzo, the 46-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro has come to terms with the constant turns of the Fairplex oval. And though his heart still belongs to Ipanema, for the next 17 days he is body and soul a man of the midway.

When the Fairplex meet commences on Friday, Almeida will be determined to defend his title as the leading stakes rider of the 2001 season.

Last year he won five of the 18 offered, a very greedy percentage. None of them are exactly found on the trail to the Breeders' Cup, but the skills required to win them are essentially a feverishly compressed version of the tradecraft used at eight- and nine-furlong tracks.

"Rio de Janeiro, Gavea, Sao Paulo - those are all very big tracks," Almeida said last weekend between races at Del Mar. "But all my professional life in Brazil, I worked for trainers who have private stables and training tracks, five furlongs, seven furlongs around. So I teach myself how to ride them. Riding at Fairplex was nothing new to me."

Neither is Almeida new to Southern California. He first landed here in 1989, under contract to a partnership of influential Brazilian owners. They left and he stayed for nearly two years before heading back to Brazil. When Almeida returned to California in the fall of 1992, he brought his family.

The reason was simple.

"I wanted the best for my children," Almeida said. "I know they can get the best here, for their school, for their life. I was willing to sacrifice my professional position in Brazil, but it doesn't bother me."

Almeida and his wife, Anna, have a son and two daughters: Maria Candida is 19, attends Pasadena City College, and is adding Italian to her fluency in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Lino is 16 and a track star at Arcadia High School. Little Maria Amelia - a Cal-bred, said her dad - is busy being 8.

"At home, my wife and I still speak Portuguese," Almeida said. "I can even get Brazilian TV on satellite. My kids, they speak Portuguese to us and English to each other. When I speak English, they correct me all the time."

Back in Brazil, the name of Almeida is rich with history. Gonzo is a third generation rider who reigned as champion of his country in 1973 and 1974 when he was still a skinny teen. In Brazil, Almeida won more than 2,500 races.

In America, Almeida has nowhere near the volume of his Brazilian business, but purses help make up the difference. He has established solid working relationships with trainers such as Ron McAnally, Mel Stute, and Jenine Sahadi. At one time or another, he has won stakes races with Brave Act, Real Connection, Windsharp, Hesabull, Score Quick, and Funontherun.

His biggest American score came in the $500,000 Hollywood Turf Handicap in 1995, when he upset Sandpit with Earl of Barking.

"I try to be there every morning," Almeida said. "People see that, they know they can count on you."

It also helps to be a true gentleman who never holds a grudge. Earlier in the Del Mar meet, after a troubled trip in the San Clemente Stakes aboard Alozaina, Almeida was replaced by Eddie Delahoussaye. It made no difference. Alozaina still finished third in the subsequent Del Mar Oaks.

"It's just business," Almeida said. "I get taken off here, I'll get another one there. You can never look back, because when you get to the front, you always look at the wire."

Almeida closed his Del Mar meet with a flurry, winning the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap with Delta Form and the Thoroughbred Owners of California Handicap aboard the Brazilian mare Canzone.

The upcoming Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita is rife with rich chances. Canzone may be good enough to try Astra and the rest of the West's top grass mares in the $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes on Oct. 5, and Delta Form figures right in the thick of the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Turf Championship the following day.

But let's not get ahead of the game. Before Almeida can tackle such headline events, he must deal with the L.A. County Fair. For now, his sights are set on the Pio Pico, the Black Swan, the Bustles and Bows, the Bangles and Beads. Go ahead and chuckle. The money spends just fine.