11/23/2004 12:00AM

Fences to mend, horses to ride

Robby Albarado aboard 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. His career is more complicated today.

Robby Albarado has done down time before. Twice during races he has fallen off his horse and onto his head, once in bad way, and a few years ago Albarado smashed his pelvis. When he made his comebacks, people rooted for him, especially in New Orleans, where Albarado has become the main man. "Robby!" the fans call out at Fair Grounds, and Albarado flashes his smile, boyishly charming.

Albarado rides the first horse in the first race on the first day of the 2004-05 Fair Grounds meet, a low-level claimer named Carrsonetclaire. It will be his first mount since Nov. 7 - but for this comeback, not everyone is in his corner.

In a typical year, Albarado wouldn't even be in this spot. Usually, he has to finish off the Churchill Downs fall meet before coming to New Orleans. But Albarado was one of 14 riders banned from Churchill after boycotting the track's races when entries were taken for the Nov. 10 card, a protest against a perceived lack of catastrophic insurance available to jockeys. Churchill answered with an iron fist, ruling off the boycotting riders at Churchill. The ban wasn't extended to other CDI properties, including Fair Grounds, but Albarado has not been welcomed to New Orleans with open arms.

While nearly universal sympathy exists for the core content of the insurance issue, there has been widespread criticism among horsemen of the riders' boycott. And on a practical level, Fair Grounds officials wanted to make sure it didn't happen to them.

Albarado had a meeting late Tuesday morning with new Fair Grounds general manager Randy Soth. Soth and Albarado's agent, Lenny Pike, are old friends, and Albarado has a close friendship with Jason Boulet, Fair Grounds's assistant racing secretary. Even so, Albarado was asked for assurance that there will be no trouble.

"For Fair Grounds's sake, for the sake of this company, I need to know what Robby's intentions are," Soth said. "I need to make sure there's not going to be something that's going to jeopardize things here."

For now, the answer is this: Albarado rides seven horses on Thursday's 10-race card. He is looking to mend fences, not tear them down.

"I think people here know me," Albarado said. "I don't think it's going to hamper me. I don't think I have anything to prove. Getting back to work will be nice, and I'm really trying to put this whole thing behind me. It's in the hands of people higher up than me now."

Albarado, 31, said he has purchased additional catastrophic insurance since the Churchill walkout. He also said he participated in the walkout not for himself, but for riders less fortunate.

"The insurance thing had to be addressed. It took this to get it noticed," said Albarado.

And while Albarado wants to move on, he also stands behind his actions. "I've talked to owners and trainers since this happened," he said. "I told them I stood up for my word. I told them I stood tall."

Pike said he received "the same welcome as in previous years" when he started making rounds on the Fair Grounds backstretch.

"He's going to work his butt off to get all his customers back," Pike said of Albarado.

Customer No. 1 is trainer Neil Howard, who in recent seasons has put Albarado on his best horses, including the 2003 Horse of the Year, Mineshaft. Howard and his primary owner, Will Farish - former chairman of the board at Churchill - are sticking with Albarado.

"He's going to resume riding for us, and it's not going to affect our relationship," said Howard. "Did Mr. Farish and I feel like we were affected by the walkout? Yes, it did affect us. We discussed what transpired as far as Robby was concerned, and it'll be business as usual."

Talk to Albarado about the arc of his career, and Mineshaft's name quickly gets mentioned. The Mineshaft season represents a zenith for Albarado, though Mineshaft was retired before he could run in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Even without a big horse in 2004, Albarado ranks 14th among jockeys in earnings, with close to $10 million.

Still, Albarado reached that spot on the mountain a few seasons ago. After Pat Day, he probably is the best-known rider in Kentucky, and at Fair Grounds, Albarado is shooting for his sixth riding title. But on a national level, Albarado sits just below the very elite. He and Pike will scramble for a good mount in the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup rather than fielding competing offers.

"I'm satisfied with where I am, but I'm not content," Albarado said. "The big thing is to stay healthy. If I can stay healthy, I think I can go forward."

Albarado could conceivably ride for another 20 years - but he's already been going for close to 15. "Some days it feels even longer, when it's harder to get up in the morning," he said.

The thing is, Albarado does get up. He shows up for work, he rides hard, and he treats horsemen and owners with respect. It's that - and his obvious skills - that have carried Albarado this far. This latest snag is likely to be consumed by future accomplishments.

"The bottom line is this," said longtime Fair Grounds trainer Tom Amoss, who counts Albarado as a friend. "Robby has to come out and win races, and if he does, he'll be right back in high demand. I know Robby Albarado, and that's what he's going to do."