03/02/2005 12:00AM

Ever-popular Eddie D. relents

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It feels like hanging with an ex-president. A beloved ex-president. You know, one of those guys with a face chiseled on the side of a mountain.

"Eddie D., lookin' good!"

"We miss you, Eddie D."

"Hey, Eddie. When you coming back?"

At each salutation, as he wades through a racetrack crowd, Eddie Delahoussaye delivers a wave, a smile, a nod - sometimes all three - stopping occasionally for a brief conversation or an autograph. He could run for mayor tomorrow and win in a waltz.

Only a special handful of athletes reach the end of an all-star career with overflow reservoirs of fan goodwill. Tony Gwynn comes to mind, along with Cal Ripken, Edwin Moses, and Dr. J.

Delahoussaye fits the same bill. From the minute he cracked the big leagues, with a national championship in 1978 and back-to-back Kentucky Derby wins in 1982-83, he never lost the common touch. If success went to his head, he hid it well.

Delahoussaye has lived as he rode, with patience and quiet style, preferring to give all the credit to the horses and the people who care for them. His only demand was simple and unnegotiable - never denigrate the jockeys or devalue their sacrifice.

"Last time I checked, we're the only ones crazy enough to ride these things," Delahoussaye would say, time and again. "You bet we earn our money."

Like all great athletes, Delahoussaye had hoped he could write the ending to his own professional career. That pipe dream ended on the backstretch of the Del Mar turf course on the afternoon of Aug. 30, 2002, when his horse broke down and speared him into the hard ground. His neck absorbed most of the blow.

It was the better part of six months before Delahoussaye felt good enough to start making regular appearances at the track. The prognosis for a return to competition was not good, so he talked about setting up ownership syndicates and began attending bloodstock sales. He also turned down request after request from California's racetrack managements to hold a special day in his honor, marking what was obviously the end of the line. Obvious, that is, to everyone but Delahoussaye.

Now, finally, that day of tribute has come. Saturday at Santa Anita Park, as a special bonus to a program already rich with the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap and the return of champion Declan's Moon, Eddie Delahoussaye will be the center of attention during a special ceremony dedicated to his singular career. As far as his friends and fans are concerned, it's about time. But why now?

"I weakened," Delahoussaye said. "I can handle it now. Back then I was still in denial, hoping I could come back. I had three specialists tell me the same thing, but I didn't want to believe it. So I didn't want to get up there and say goodbye, then all of a sudden start feeling good again and go to riding. And it could have happened. It could have happened."

But it didn't. Delahoussaye, who turned 53 last September, is starting to experience the chronic aches and pains that befall all aging athletes. A sore hip, perhaps from that 2002 fall, has been giving him a hitch in his get-a-long, while the neck injuries have taken forever to heal, confirming what medical science has known for centuries: The only thing that mends slower than damaged nerves is a broken heart.

Not a day goes by that Delahoussaye does not miss the game. He misses the mornings, full of promise, when he might uncover some nugget of a 2-year-old, or some rocket Neil Drysdale was ready to unwrap. He misses the room, with Shoemaker's practical jokes, McCarron's constant curiosity, and Pincay's unrelenting competitive fire.

Sure, the grim memories are still there, the accidents and the injuries, the dieting to pare down a natural 125-pound body. But the great moments keep them at bay, moments provided by animals with names like A.P. Indy, Gato del Sol, Sunny's Halo, Roving Boy, Princess Rooney, Prized, Cardmania, Hollywood Wildcat, Pleasant Stage, Pleasant Tap, Bold n' Determined, Tinners Way, Mehmet, Festin, Gorgeous, Sardula.

Imagine riding those horses at their very best. Imagine winning the 1996 Santa Anita Handicap, Delahoussaye's first and only, with the 18-1 shot Mr Purple, who never ran a race that good before or after that remarkable afternoon.

"He was on his game that day, and that was the perfect day to be on his game," Delahoussaye said. "That's what makes racing great. You know the old saying - you can't win if you're not in. Sometimes people think people are crazy for running a horse where they don't belong. Sometimes those people wind up winning. If the guys who bought horses for millions of dollars won all the races, it would be a boring game. And then nobody would come."

Delahoussaye keeps coming back, as a civilian now, out of uniform, but perhaps appreciated more than ever.

"It's a great feeling, when people come up and tell you, 'Man, we wish you were back,' " he said. "Heck, I wish I was back. But I've come to realize how lucky I was to have the career I had. And especially how lucky I was to be able to walk away from that career on my own two legs, even if I do limp a little."