11/25/2004 1:00AM

A career year - and then some

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Stewart Elliott sponged off after winning the first race at Aqueduct on Thursday and picked up a holiday phone call from the other coast. He was asked if he had anything in particular to be thankful for, other than the fact that he had just won the first race at Aqueduct.

Elliott could only laugh. "How about the whole year?" he replied.

He was exaggerating, of course, but not by much. Other than the last few strides of the Belmont Stakes and a mass media excavation of his alcoholic past, Elliott will look back upon the 2004 season as something out of an athlete's wildest dreams.

Attached firmly to the back of the colt called Smarty Jones, Elliott soared to heights he never attained in his 20 years as a journeyman jockey. Overnight, he found out what it was like to be treated like a celebrity, a magazine cover boy, and a lightning rod for all manner of giddy praise and harsh criticism. And it was all happening at the age of 39, when most professional athletes are approaching the twilight of their careers.

Through it all, Elliott has maintained an eerie equanimity, grinning at his good fortune but taking nothing for granted. In public and in action, he remained a plain-spoken, blue-collar worker bee who buffaloed a legion of press last spring by politely answering yes-or-no questions with either "yes" or "no."

"In my life, I never had a horse get me that kind of recognition." Elliott said. "At first it was all new to me. It took me a little time to get used to it, then after awhile it got to be routine. You've just got to stay level-headed and handle things as they come."

The fact that he was winning a race at Aqueduct on Thanksgiving Day was a byproduct of his connection with Smarty Jones. Elliott will be riding in New York this winter, commuting from his eastern Pennsylvania home, after competing in New Jersey during the summer and fall. He also put in enough time at The Pha to hold down fourth-place in the ongoing 2004 standings, winning 113 races from just 492 rides.

"I had thought about going to Monmouth this year, even before Smarty came along," Elliott said. "But I would definitely say Smarty kicked my career up to the next level."

A good horse can do that. Elliott's mounts have earned just over $14 million this year, good for fifth in the national standings. Even without the Smarty Jones bounty, which included the $5 million Oaklawn Park centenary bonus, Elliott's total of $6.4 million is nearly twice his previous career best.

This time last year, while on his way to a 2003 purses of $3.5 million, Elliott was chilling out in eastern Pennsylvania, easily leading the standings at Philadelphia Park. He had just ridden a 2-year-old trained by John Servis to a 15-length victory in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, and Elliott said he thought the colt might turn out to be something special.

He did, and what a ride it was. Elliott was aboard for all nine races Smarty Jones ran, from his maiden voyage Nov. 9, 2003, to his final start in the Belmont Stakes on June 5, 2004. They won all but the last one, when their ferocious mid-race move under pressure emptied the tank and allowed Birdstone to catch them in the final yards of the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles.

Just like that, the Triple Crown went up in smoke. For Elliott, though, the period of mourning was brief.

"After we won the Derby, everything else was gravy," he said. "I mean, the Derby is the race every rider and every trainer wants to win. To even be in the race was a thrill."

Once the Belmont dust settled and Smarty Jones was retired, Elliott established a new routine on the New Jersey-Maryland circuit. He finished third in the standings at Monmouth Park and third at The Meadowlands. Last Saturday at Pimlico, Elliott was the star of the day, winning the $100,000 Selima Stakes aboard Hear Me Roar and the $300,000 De Francis Memorial with Wildcat Heir.

He is also a fixture atop Rockport Harbor, another unbeaten 2-year-old that has emerged from the stable of John Servis.

"So far, he's done it easy in all three of his races," Elliott said. "He still hasn't got everything together, though, as far as knowing exactly what's going on. He's never had anybody look him in the eye, so he's just been kind of loafing. But that's good. He's just been that much better than what he's run against.

"He's very comfortable to sit," Elliott said. "He's got a nice, long stride. Very smooth. Early on, he didn't really want to load. He never did anything wrong, but he was just fidgety enough that you thought he might get himself left. But they've been working with him, and each time he runs he's better than the last."

Rockport Harbor will be tested for stamina Saturday at Aqueduct in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes. If the colt wins, with Elliott and Servis again in the mix, comparisons to Smarty Jones will run rampant. Elliott dismissed such chatter.

"It's hard to believe there'll ever be another colt like Smarty Jones," he said. "But just to get a chance to ride another good one like this is great."