07/18/2011 3:43PM

Del Mar's latest face hardly a newcomer

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Fans arriving early enough Wednesday for Del Mar’s opening program will be treated to the sight of the traditional team photo being shot in the walking ring, when the jockeys of the Del Mar colony gather in colorful riding regalia for as formal a portrait as possible under the conditions.

Most of the faces will be familiar at a glance. There’s Rosario, Bejarano, Talamo, Gomez, Flores, Valenzuela, Pedroza, Espinoza, Sutherland, Garcia, Quinonez, Baze . . . and, um, that guy over there, with the blue eyes and the head of Hollywood hair.

Joe Steiner is returning to Del Mar as a jockey for the first time since the summer of 2004. No, he did not join the Peace Corps, or hike the Andes, or hole up somewhere in Santa Fe to write the great American novel. He spent the time doing what a lot of jockeys are forced to do: recovering from a serious racing injury, suffering through post-operative complications, and agonizing over the spectre of permanent retirement.

At one point, about three years ago, if you asked Steiner which hurt worse, his neck or his heart, the answer was a snap.

“I was lost, no question,” Steiner said this week as he set up his condo near Del Mar. “When you’ve only been one thing all your life, it’s tough to see what else is out there, especially when that thing gives you such joy. It’s hard to just walk away without a fight.”

Steiner, who turns 47 on Aug. 7, comes from a family of jockeys, trainers and all-around race trackers in Washington State, a remote, self-sufficient outpost populated by a proud and independent people, unfailingly polite, good-hearted, and not particularly impressed with anywhere else.

Steiner recalls wanting to be a jockey from the age of 5. At 15 he was apprenticed to the stable trained at Santa Anita by family friend John Longden, the Hall of Fame jockey. At 16 Steiner was riding races.

During the course of his apprenticeship, spanning parts of 1982 and ‘83, his mounts earned more than $1.6 million, while his name became synonymous with the Longden-trained major stakes winners Kangroo Court and Regal Bearing. The kid who acted like he’d been a jockey all his life was now a jockey for real. And as far as he was concerned, forever.

It is a peculiar twist to the concept of “situated identity” – the degree to which you feel you are your job – that nearly all professional athletes must face. In their 1995 study, a group of researchers in the psychology department of University of Notre Dame noted that athletes are different because “athletic identity is typically formed early in one’s life . . . and developing that talent becomes a central preoccupation for both the child and significant adults in his/her life,” and that “by the time they reach high school, highly successful athletes have internalized the athletic identity, frequently at the expense of other possible social roles.”

It is this deeply rooted concept of identity that makes retirement so difficult for an athlete, and failing to acknowledge its effect can court trouble. Steiner was grounded in early 2005 by fractured cervical vertebrae that required fusion, then later was discovered to have nerve damage in a shoulder that needed further repair. He was told he should hang up the white pants for good.

“I fought the idea, at the same time I was trying to get healthy,” Steiner said. “It was a bad combination.”

Paddle into enough emotional waves and one of them finally will take you to shore. In 2008 Steiner finally felt good enough to start riding again, at first for pleasure and then as an exercise rider at the track, where his reputation lingered as a relentlessly upbeat.

Still, it’s a long way from peerless exercise rider to competitive jockey. Steiner is the first to admit the package is a tough sell. His career stats do not dazzle – 969 winners, $15.3 million won by his mounts – and his tack trunk is stamped with the names of no fewer than 49 racetracks. He knows there will be those who see him as just another desperate veteran, running out of money and time, grasping at one last hurrah.

At the same time, any doubts about Steiner’s fitness to do the job are dispelled after watching him ride, and he still cuts a dashing figure in silks. His secret?

“Yoga,” he replied. “I can’t tell you what a difference it has made in my strength, my wind, my balance. In my first race I expected to be winded and leg-weary. I never took a deep breath, and my legs were solid.”

Rather than billing himself as the seasoned gun for hire, willing to ride anything with four legs and a tail, Steiner is determined to offer the full advantage of his experience.

“It makes no sense riding a bunch of horses I know have no chance,” Steiner said. “After a while that can have a terrible affect on your confidence level. Besides, it’s hard to look good on a slow horse, and people begin identifying you with horses that have no shot. I think it‘s important to make every ride count for something, and every horse you ride mean something to you.”

To that end Steiner has rekindled relationships with smaller outfit trainers he has known for years – Neil French, Joe Herrick, Bob Leonard – while keeping all options open. There have been lots of longshots.

“Live longshots is how I look at them,” Steiner said with a grin. “And who doesn’t love a live longshot?”

In his first race back he was second at 34-1. His first win back, for Leonard on May 28, lit up the tote at 71-1. His second winner, Memphis Mobster for French, was a more modest 10-1. Steiner has had five seconds and two thirds to go along with those wins.

“As far as I’m concerned, finishing anywhere down to fifth is in the money, because my owner gets part of the purse,” Steiner said. “And if you’re in a superfecta race, you better be riding hard for fourth.”

Steiner has four mounts over the first three days of the meet, including Memphis Mobster right back in the fourth race on opening day.

“I could say just riding one on Del Mar’s opening day is a thrill, and it is, for any jockey,” Steiner said. “But winning a race on opening day, when everybody’s watching – now that really means something.”