01/04/2006 12:00AM

For Gryder, it feels good to be home

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Jockey Aaron Gryder has spent most of the last decade in New York.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The peripatetic career of Aaron Gryder, which has taken him to Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, the New York Racing Association tracks, and Monmouth Park, has finally come full circle.

Gryder, 35, left Southern California at 18, turning Horace Greeley's advice on its head. Go east, young man? Absolutely, as far as Gryder was concerned. He was ready for new adventures all around the country. But now married, and with two small children, Gryder has returned to Santa Anita, where he has a chance to make inroads in a jockey colony that is in transition. At the least, he'll class up the joint.

Even though he always has looked younger than he is, Gryder always has been mature beyond his years, having gleaned all he could from the deportment of Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, and Fernando Toro, who were still riding when Gryder first came around in 1987. They're all gone now, as is Gary Stevens. With a little prodding, first from jockey agent Nick Cosato, then from trainers such as Craig Lewis, and finally from his wife, Karen, Gryder decided it was time to leave New York, his base for the past nine years, to see if you can go home again.

"I always said I would come back," Gryder said in an interview earlier this week. "I just never put a timetable on it. Maybe I should have focused on it sooner. The last nine years in New York, I did really well at Aqueduct in the winter, and that would carry over to the summer. My business wasn't as strong in the summer, but I did well enough.

"My wife is from out here, too. She wanted to return, but she never bothered me about my business. She knew she married a jock. All she ever said was, 'We better leave before the kids get a New York accent.' " By Gryder's account, neither his son Christian, 5, nor daughter Grace, 3, say "How you doin'?" on the playground.

After the first seven days of Santa Anita's meeting, Gryder has won three races, none in stakes. But he has made inroads with several top stables, such as Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill, in part because Cosato has long-standing relationships with those trainers after representing the likes of Corey Nakatani and Patrick Valenzuela in recent years, and also because Gryder puts in plenty of time working horses during training hours.

"He works hard and he tries hard. He's no-nonsense," said Lewis, who first rode Gryder back when Gryder won the riding title at the Hollywood Park fall meeting as an apprentice in 1987. "He's got a very good way about him. I like his attitude. I like horses and people that give their best, and he fits into that category."

Gryder grew up not far from Santa Anita in West Covina, Calif. He learned to ride at a ranch owned by former jockey Rudy Campas, then won his first race, at age 16, at Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 18, 1987. That fall, he won the riding title at Hollywood Park.

But a confluence of events conspired to hurt Gryder's business. After losing his apprentice allowance, Gryder had trouble getting mounts in the star-studded colony of that era. One of his biggest supporters, trainer John Gosden, returned to England. Other established trainers for whom Gryder regularly rode, such as Laz Barrera, Joe Manzi, and Willard Proctor, either died or reduced the size of their stables.

So, Gryder, flush with the promise of youth and figuring time was on his side, decided to ride in the Midwest and East. He has won riding titles at Arlington Park, Aqueduct, and Churchill Downs.

Gryder returned to Southern California briefly in 1993-94, but left again, and largely has ridden in New York since then. This time, now that he is at a different stage of life both personally and professionally, Gryder said he is here to stay.

"I'm 35. I've still got a chance to break in here at a fairly young age," he said. "If I'd have waited another five years, people might have said 'He's too old,' and every year from now, there'd probably be two or three other guys who would come along and try to break in. If ever the time was right, it was now.

"My mind's at ease," he said. "There's no question it will work out. I'm confident in myself that I'll make things work. It's going to take six to eight months to build a solid foundation out here, to give everybody confidence I'm staying and to build rapport. I'm happy with the way things have started out."

Karen and the kids came West with Gryder for Christmas and New Year's, but returned to New York on Monday. They will be there through the school year, when Gryder will then sell their house in Floral Park, N.Y., near Belmont Park. He already has sold his second home, in Saratoga Springs.

In the meantime, while his wife and children remain on the East Coast, Gryder is living in an apartment in nearby Pasadena that jockey Mike Smith leased before going to Kentucky and then Florida.

"He left me his suits," Gryder said, "but I'm going to have to adjust them."