02/24/2006 12:00AM

Correa's feats hard to top

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PHOENIX - During his 30-year career as a jockey, Ray Correa was a mainstay at Turf Paradise, where he held his own against such proven commodities as Jerry Lambert, Dean Hall, Eddie Burns, and Hugo Dittfach.

Later on, he turned to training, which is what he was doing on a recent morning in his corner of the Turf Paradise backstretch, not far from the therapeutic equine swimming pool. Correa does just about everything himself except gallop them around, which is probably a good idea since he is 79, and his left leg could work a little better.

As a rider he traveled far and wide. Correa said his favorite track was "anywhere they'd put me on a horse." When he turned to training, though, Turf Paradise was home, and he has been winning races from there since the early 1970's.

"Nobody ever wanted to be in the barns back here when they had the planes landing," Correa said, pointing out toward Terra Buena Lane, running along the south side of the stable area.

Correa was right about the airstrip, a 3,500-foot length of blacktop installed when the track was built back in 1955. Eventually, a company offering glider rides made the Turf Paradise strip its home. Qualified pilots could get a tow from a small craft and away they would go, enjoying the thermal drafts of Paradise Valley.

"The wind sock was right over there by that light pole," Correa said. "Whenever an airplane came over the top of us, he was plenty high. But the glider he was pulling wasn't much higher than the barns. You held your breath until they caught the air and gained some altitude."

Correa was asked if he ever gave into temptation and hopped a ride in one of those gliders, as long as they were so handy.

"Oh, no," he replied. "I'm scared of an elevator. I don't know why, but I'm always worried something might go wrong."

At one time or another, just about every talented rider in the West has surfaced at Turf Paradise, either for a winter season or a one-shot stakes engagement. More than a few of them have been Hall of Famers, including Ralph Neves, Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Pat Day, Russell Baze, and Gary Stevens.

Scott Stevens, Gary's brother, has won six Turf Paradise titles, second only to Jim Powell's eight. Ray York, who won the 1954 Kentucky Derby on Determine, had a career best at Turf Paradise when he won seven races on a January day in 1970.

None of them, however, underwent heart surgery only to return to competition 24 days later, with three wins no less, which is what Ray Correa did in 1957. Later, as a trainer, Correa took pride in being a leader among equal opportunity employers.

"I won races with 14 different girls," Correa said. "Not many trainers can say that."

That's a fact. But just in case a doubter comes around the Correa shed row, he has a pile of winner's circle photos to prove it. And there they are: Jennifer Bramblett, Marla Webb, Valerie Venable, Kim Eldridge, Tanya Laib, Violet "Pinkie" Smith, Jody Parker, Sandra Roteliuk, Chelsea Zupan, Amy Rankin, Sandi Gann, Cindy Leblanc, Sandy Hawley, Denise McCormick . . .

Whoa a sec. That Hawley dame. Nice long hair and a winning smile, but isn't she a he, as in Hall of Famer Sandy Hawley?

"Goodness, I know that," Correa said. "I rode against Hawley. I've just got that win picture there because of that horse he rode for me, Quinta Rage, at Hollywood Park. He was quite an old horse. You know, he ran 212 times."

Sandi Gann, on the other hand, is all girl and a local champ to boot. She led the Turf Paradise standings at the 1991-92 meeting and might have added a few more titles had she not suffered a series of serious injuries.

In September 1992 she broke her neck at Fairplex Park. In 1997 it was her hip at Lone Star Park. In 1999, a torn rotator cuff meant shoulder surgery, while in the summer of 2004 she cracked a bone in her lower leg at Emerald Downs.

Then on January 14, 2005, came the ultimate insult, coupled with injury. Returning to the Turf Paradise winner's circle after taking the ninth race, Gann's mount reared high and hard, throwing her to the ground. Her left femur shattered just below the hip joint, requiring two hours of surgery. A subsequent operation was required to remove a stabilizing rod, but she still carries in her pelvis area seven metal plates and 19 screws, many imbedded deep in the bone.

Gann, 43, needed a year to recover. Now she is working horses again at Turf Paradise and hopes to be back in action soon. It goes without saying, she has nothing to prove.

"You'd be surprised," Gann said. "You can be away for only a couple months, and people won't remember what you can do until you win a couple races. I'm hoping to jog their memories as soon as possible."

Here's betting Gann comes back just like she went out - a winner.