04/30/2003 11:00PM

First-timer in rare company


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On Tuesday evening of Kentucky Derby week, Kentucky Derby rookie Rosemary Homeister Jr. realized a lifelong dream by meeting Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat. The obligatory photo op included Homeister, Chenery, and a bouquet of a dozen red roses.

Homeister is 30 - the same age as Secretariat's Triple Crown - but just because she was in diapers when Big Red did his 1973 number at Churchill Downs doesn't mean her die was not already cast. Her mother, a trainer, always told her that she rode before she walked.

"We had a 17-hand buckskin named Buck," Homeister said. "He used to put his head to the grass, I'd sit on his head and he'd throw me up. Then I'd slide down his neck and gallop off."

Apparently, that's how you make a jockey. This one turned out to be an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice who now can be found regularly among the leaders of the long summer meets at Calder, not far from where she grew up. And even if she was not quite old enough to appreciate the finer points of Secretariat's Derby tour de force - she was 10 months old at the time - his spirit has been imbued in her these subsequent years and inspired her ceaseless ambition to compete in America's most famous race.

In that sense Homeister is no different than any of the other five first-timers riding forth on Saturday in the 129th Derby. The last rookie to win was Ron Franklin, in 1979, and he came equipped with Spectacular Bid.

Homeister, though, belongs to that rarefied demographic of women to ride in the Derby. Only four others have tried - Diane Crump, Patti Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt, and Julie Krone - usually aboard longshot chances lumped in the mutuel field, and the best of their finishes has been a couple of 11ths. With the help of Supah Blitz, runner-up in this year's Fountain of Youth and Aventura Stakes, Homeister is determined to improve upon that number.

"Women get so few chances in the Derby," said Cooksey, who is rapidly mending from two broken legs suffered in a recent Keeneland spill. "I'd just love it if she could hit the board, or better. And who says she won't? This is the Derby, and stranger things have happened."

Cooksey's chance came in 1984 aboard So Vague, a stakes winner at age 2. At the time, she asked veteran Kentucky rider Don Brumfield for advice, and Brumfield, who won the Derby as a rookie in 1966 aboard Kauai King, was glad to oblige.

"Don told me to be ready for the wall of noise when I hit the stretch," Cooksey recalled. "He said your horse will flinch from it, maybe just a little, and that I had to just ride right through it.

"Then it happened," Cooksey added. "I felt it - the rush of noise, the horse hesitating just a little - and I thought, 'That's what Don was talking about. It just happened to me.' It was amazing."

Homeister hit town Tuesday, leading with her wall-to-wall smile, wearing a homemade Supah Blitz Derby T-shirt and passing around clip-on badges that read "Go Supah Rosie Go." She toed the mark for a parade of TV cameras and held nonstop interviews before escaping to the top of the backstretch bleachers for a few quiet moments. In the distance, the twin spires framed her view. Behind her, fans slipped through trees to snap her picture.

"I know I'll have butterflies, I'm ready for that," Homeister said. "But once I'm alone with the horse, it will be okay. I just need to stay focused, and remember than I've been around the track 14,000 times before.

"One thing about Supah Blitz - nothing fazes him. He was surrounded here the other morning by television cameras, and he just looked at them with a 'ho-hum,' and went about his business."

In that sense, Homeister will be going forth on Saturday with a thousand-pound security blanket. After 15 starts - 10 of them with Homeister - Supah Blitz might be the most well-grounded animal in the field.

"He's going to help me a lot," Homeister said. "And he's going to know if I ask him too soon, because I've done that before, and I'll feel him wait."

Neither will Homeister be intimidated by the company of men surrounding her in the gate. After more than a decade as a professional, she has earned the respect of her peers. Each winter at Gulfstream, she rides boot to boot against veterans Edgar Prado, Jerry Bailey, Jose Santos, Pat Day, Robby Albarado, and Shane Sellers, and all have Derby mounts.

"I know it will be tight out there," she said. "My job will be to wait. Have patience. I got to jog a horse around the track this morning and take a slow look at things - how the turns are so sharp and how the three-eighths pole is in the middle of the turn, instead of going into the turn, like most mile tracks. Jockeys will instinctively move going into that far turn, but here, you have to wait."

And if she wins, or even manages to hit the board? Is she prepared for the media feeding frenzy that is sure to follow?

"This is what I've worked hard for, getting a chance to ride in the Kentucky Derby," Homeister said. "Whatever happens, I'm ready."