05/01/2002 11:00PM

Eddie D. seeks cherry on sundae


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Eddie Delahoussaye is not the type of guy to daydream. He is a practical man who has built a Hall of Fame career by rarely kidding himself. But on Wednesday, while hanging around Hollywood Park waiting to ride, he found himself awash in a thought that was too sweet to fight.

It was Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, about a minute and a half into the 128th Kentucky Derby, and Delahoussaye was making his move aboard the Spiral Stakes winner, Perfect Drift. They passed tired runners, one by one through the 1,234 1/2-foot stretch, until the only horse left between Perfect Drift and the finish line was the San Felipe Stakes winner, Medaglia d'Oro, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr.

Later that evening, at home with his family, the image was still fresh.

"Wouldn't that be something, if me and Laffit came down there together?" Delahoussaye said, liking the way it sounded. "And don't think it can't happen. It's very possible."

For the jockey they call Eddie D., a winner of more than 6,000 races, the distraction was a pleasant change of pace. Much of his contemplation over the past year has dwelt on retirement, which would be more than well earned after 34 years in the line of fire.

"I was thinking seriously about retiring at the end of this year," Delahoussaye said. "But it's not like I have to write it down on paper. Things are going pretty good right now. I feel great. And I want to win the Derby more than ever."

His daydream was not all that farfetched. In this year's Derby, anything seems possible. Harlan's Holiday is the morning line favorite, but at 9-2 he is more like the horse with the least confusing set of credentials.

This is one class that needs to be graded on a curve.

So don't laugh. A Derby finish involving two riders over the age of 50 could happen. Pincay is 55, Delahoussaye turns 51 in September, and both of them are riding like grandmasters. Witness Hollywood Gold Rush Day last weekend, when the old pros took the two top races on the card. Anyway, what do you want on your horse in a field of 20, going for America's greatest prize? Youthful abandon or cold-blooded experience?

"I don't know what it is," Delahoussaye said, "but when they get in the gate for the Derby, most of the time jocks just lose it. I guess it must be the anticipation, wanting to win it so bad."

And so, most of the time, chaos ensues. Never mind that fairy tale about the "greatest two minutes in sports." Delahoussaye says it can be the roughest.

"Winning it already helps," Delahoussaye said. "You've done it. You're not as desperate. But until you do, it can get to you. When people find out you're a jockey, they don't care what you've won or if you're in the Hall of Fame. They want to know if you've won the Derby."

There are 20 riders in the 128th Kentucky Derby. Eight of them have won at least once. Delahoussaye and Pincay got theirs in a cluster between 1982 and 1984 - Gato del Sol and Sunny's Halo belonged to Eddie; Laffit rode Swale. Gary Stevens has won three, and Jerry Bailey, Kent Desormeaux, and Chris McCarron have two each. Pat Day and Jorge Chavez are the others.

That leaves 12 very hungry riders with no idea how it feels, or how to make it happen.

"It's a great feeling," Delahoussaye said. "I remember after Sunny's Halo I told my family that now I'd done something that was in the history books. That's important for anybody who loves racing the way I do."

With a little bit of luck, Delahoussaye could have rewritten the whole book. His two Derby winners put him in a club of 15, staring up at Bill Hartack (5 for 12) and Eddie Arcaro (5 for 21) at the top of the mountain. A case can be made, however, for another four Delahoussaye Derbies: In 1981 with a troubled Woodchopper (second); in 1988 with division champ Risen Star (third); in 1992 with eventual Horse of the Year A.P. Indy (scratched); and in 1994 with the inexperienced Strodes Creek (second), whose feet nearly failed him on a slippery first turn when he was forced to the middle of the track.

"I was surprised he stayed up at all," Delahoussaye recalled.

In Perfect Drift, Delahoussaye has what he descibes as a handy colt who can be placed anywhere in the race. They collaborated for the first time in the Spiral and won by a typically cool Delahoussaye neck.

"A horse like that can help you make your own luck," he said. "And luck is what wins it most of the time. You can make a plan, study the Form, get a strategy. But there's nothing beats good luck."

Delahoussaye might be due. And if his musings do come true? What if he looks over at the sixteenth pole and sees Pincay's humpbacked power pushing Medaglia d'Oro for all he's worth? Will Eddie cut his senior colleague any slack?

"No way," Delahoussaye said. "Besides, this might be my last chance. Laffit could ride for another 10 years."