05/26/2004 12:00AM

Good news from the saddle


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The election of Kent Desormeaux to the Hall of Fame sends a refreshing breeze through an otherwise dark season of news from the jockeys' room.

This year, there has been the death in February of Mike Rowland, the critical accident involving Rick Wilson, the four-jock pile-up last weekend at Churchill Downs, the lengthy suspensions in California of Pat Valenzuela and Corey Nakatani, and the "HBO Undercover" documentary dealing with the terrible consequences of unchecked weight reduction. Even the Stewart Elliott fairytale with Smarty Jones had its sobering side when Elliott's past brushes with the law were reluctantly revealed.

In the category of dumb, unforced errors, 21-year-old Abdel Torres was busted after a race at Sunland Park for taping a buzzer to his wrist with a bandage. According to New Mexico Racing Commission executive director India Hatch, it was the first buzzer found at any of the state's tracks "in at least 10 years." On April 28, the Torres ruling was issued: a five-year suspension and $1,500 fine.

Chad Warren made the wrong kind of headlines last September, when witnesses say he assaulted a North Dakota racing steward outside a West Fargo restaurant. Warren's motive apparently stemmed from the steward's ruling that Warren - at 142 pounds - was ineligible to ride at the North Dakota Horse Park meet. Last week the state racing commission finally ruled, barring Warren for 10 years.

And that's just in the good old U.S.A. On a list topped by British champion Kieren Fallon - he got 21 days earlier this year for losing a race stewards thought he should have won - jockeys everywhere seem to be coming under unprecedented scrutiny for behavior both intentional and accidental.

* Jim Cassidy, a veteran Australian jockey and two-time winner of the Melbourne Cup, was called on the carpet for a ride at Royal Randwick on April 24, when he chose to go inside rather than outside with his mount, then finished second, beaten only a neck. Cassidy admitted he made an error of judgment. The penalty: a six-week suspension.

* Jeffrey Ladiana, the regular rider of Phillipines superstar Empire King, was criticized in March for a losing ride aboard the 4-year-old colt in a minor race at the San Lazaro Leisure Park. After winning seven straight, Ladiana and Empire King appeared home and dry when longshot Music Express came from out of the clouds to win by a head.

The stewards cited Ladiana for "not giving his mount the full opportunity to run." The penalty: a suspension of 12 racing weeks. It should also be noted that Empire King returned for another race in April and was beaten again. The loss was blamed this time on leg trouble.

* Reacting to a race last Saturday, the Hong Kong stewards cited the South African jockey Glyn Schofield for "improper riding" in the fourth race at Sha Tin. Schofield, 37, was flying high in Hong Kong, nearing the end of a successful year with a coveted full-season license. His crowning moment was a victory aboard River Dancer in the $1.8 million Queen Elizabeth II Cup on April 25.

The charge? Supposedly, Schofield failed to ride to the explicit front-running instructions of his trainer, thereby allowing the favorite what stewards described as an unimpeded chance to win the race. The penalty: a six-month suspension and unlikely renewal of his full-season license.

* Then there was Sean Fox, a British steeplechase jockey who came off a horse last March at the ninth fence of a race at Fontwell Park. He escaped injury, but there was insult to come. The presiding stewards did not think it was an accident.

Fox, who spent six months recovering from a fractured shoulder in 2003, pointed out that, "Falling is part of our job. When you lose your balance and gravity takes over, you are off. I'm not going to make it look bad by rolling on my head."

After hearing additional testimony from the trainer of the horse (who was quoted as saying, "Sean should have stayed on"), the ruling commission handed down its penalty: a 21-day suspension.

Desormeaux fell off one day at Hollywood Park, 12 years ago. He fractured his skull, lost hearing in one ear for good, and nearly lost an eye. Nobody accused him of jumping. And, as history shows, he got back in the saddle to ride Horse of the Year Kotashaan the following season, then Kentucky Derby winners in 1998 and 2000.

The only problem with Desormeaux is that he seems awfully young to be in the Hall of Fame, or any Hall of Fame, for that matter. Halls of Fame are supposed to be for athletes who at least have the decency to be called middle-aged.

Desormeaux turned 34 in February. He won his first race in 1986. In 1989 he set an all-time record of 598 winners after riding 2,312 horses, an audacious act of excessive achievement that makes me tired just writing it down.

Still, Desormeaux is the same age as both Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens when they were elected to the Hall of Fame. And in the days before the Hall of Fame required a career of at least 15 years before a jockey could be considered, Laffit Pincay was elected at 29, Bill Shoemaker at 27, and the precocious Bill Hartack at age 26.

Those guys earned the right to be called Hall of Famers for a long time. The addition of Desormeaux does them proud.