03/30/2002 12:00AM

Davila's broken body back in shape


OLDSMAR Fla. - It's usually not cause for great celebration when a rider wins twice in a week. But when Mike Davila Jr. captured a race Tuesday at Tampa Bay Downs, then came back Friday with another tally, he might just as well have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Last September, Davila, who won 66 races at Finger Lakes in upstate New York last season, had his world turned upside down. He fractured vertebrae in his spine in a terrible spill at that track. His world went from winning mounts and cheering crowds to a walking brace that went from his waist to neckline, hours of therapy, and seven months between mounts.

It was also a tough time for Davila from a weight standpoint. It is twice as hard for jockeys to keep their weight at a manageable level when they are not riding and galloping horses every day. Burning up calories during the high-energy period from the time the gate opens to the finish aids a rider's unenviable task of keeping weight under control. Put a jockey out of action for a long period of time, and a 115-pound rider can gain 15 to 20 pounds if he's not careful.

But the soft-spoken Davila, a 22-year-old native of Puerto Rico, prevailed. He began his work for a return earlier this month, getting on horses and beginning to shed those unwanted pounds through diet and some trips to the "hot box," the jockeys' room equivalent to the steam room, where riders sit and let the hot temperature pull the excess water from their bodies.

Using muscles that haven't been used in months, gaining stamina and wind, while all the time losing pounds is not a pleasant project, but Davila hung tough. Even though he was so exhausted after his first mount that he fell asleep before dinner that night, on Tuesday he led throughout in a 1 1/16-mile turf race to post a mild upset with Onasilverplatter.

He came back Friday to lead from start to finish for a six-length tally on Tilted Halo. Davila has a nice way with front-running types, has soft hands, and bears a slight resemblance to Joe Rocco Jr., another rather tall, young rider who has a lot of talent and potential.

"You have to give him credit," said trainer Darren Erb, with whom Davila stayed this winter here in Tampa, "It was a pretty discouraging time for him last fall, but he hung in there. He was so bushed when he first came back he just fell into bed, but he persevered. He kept plugging away, getting stronger, and now with Finger Lakes opening soon he's in good position to have a solid year."

Erb won with 18 percent of his starters last season, and Davila will be riding for him this year. The trainers of Onasilverplatter and Tilted Halo, Mike Ferraro and Bruce Alexander, are also Finger Lakes powers, so the future looks bright for the young man who began the year in a body brace.