07/28/2004 12:00AM

Hard to walk away from riding


DEL MAR, Calif. - A half a mile into the seven-furlong fifth race at Arlington Park on July 21, Ray Sibille got to thinking it wasn't so bad after all.

His mare, Above the Harbor, was holding her own inside horses, just off the pace, and going pretty good. But then, with a quarter of a mile left to run, Above the Harbor began to lose ground, and at the eighth pole her jockey finally surrendered.

"That's when I knew," Sibille said. "The doctor was right. My hip started hurting something awful."

At least he knew what it was.

Delay, denial, and misdiagnosis had plagued Sibille for months, as he tried to ride around a growing agony in his lower back. He figured it all started in July of 2003 when he was dumped during warm-ups for a race at Arlington Park. Since there was no major damage - for a jockey, this usually means that they can walk, and no bones are poking through the skin - he went back to work.

At the end of last summer, Sibille took time off, continued to medicate the pain, tried physical therapy, and believed what his doctor told him. But when the rider returned to Arlington this spring, it was apparent that his condition had not improved. Sibille started to get the feeling that nobody really wanted to use a 51-year-old jockey with a limp, even if this one had already won more than 4,200 races.

Finally, on July 19, Sibille got the proper diagnosis from another physician. He needed hip replacement surgery, and he needed it right now.

"It was bone on bone," Sibille said. "When I asked the doctor how long I'd be out, he said, 'I'm sorry, my boy. You're out now, and out for good.' There really was no other option."

It was a hard trade. Sibille was relieved finally to learn his true condition, even though that knowledge ended a career of 35 years, 36,859 mounts, and 4,264 wins, including major stakes victories throughout the Midwest and California.

When Sibille descended upon the West Coast in the early 1980's, the cream of the training community signed on for the ride. At the time, Sibille was fresh from a four-year domination of Sportsman's Park, and performing with the kind of confidence that blooms only from steady success.

The list of races he won in the 1980's includes the San Juan Capistrano, the Hollywood Turf Cup, the Turf Invitational, the Hollywood Derby, the Santa Maria Handicap, the Del Mar Oaks, the La Canada Stakes, the Chula Vista Handicap, the Matriarch, and the Yellow Ribbon, and is topped off by the 1988 Breeders' Cup Turf, when Sibille performed a wire-to-wire miracle aboard Great Communicator at Churchill Downs.

Sibille returned to his Midwestern roots in 1992. On April 18, 2002, he reached the 4,000-winner mark at Sportsman's Park, joining an exclusive club that included only 34 riders at the time. And while his recent business did not hit the heights of years past, Sibille continued to set a high bar for personal fitness, and was always valued for his cool head and steady hand.

Sibille has come a long way from the days when he and Eddie Delahoussaye were a couple of teenage apprentice riders at Evangeline Downs.

"I was told I could have the bug for 40 winners," Sibille recalled. "Man, he might as well have said 40,000, because how you ever gonna win 40 races?"

In the past two years, Sibille witnessed both Delahoussaye and Laffit Pincay go through recovery from racetrack injuries before facing the inevitable act of official retirement.

"I was thinking, maybe they were lucky, being off for a few months and then making the decision," Sibille said. "I had to go there and ride that race knowing it was my last race, and man, that was hard. People coming up to me all day, wishing me well and offering congratulations. I'm thinking, 'This ain't no time for congratulations.' "

Then, last Saturday, as Sibille and his family were heading to Arlington for a special retirement ceremony, he got a call from Darrell Haire, the former rider who now serves as a field representative for the Jockeys' Guild. Haire had good wishes . . . and bad news. The 27-year-old jockey Gary Birzer had been rendered a paraplegic that week in an accident at Mountaineer Park.

"When he told me that, I was ashamed of myself for even thinking about feeling sorry for myself," Sibille said. "Thirty-five years, and I get to walk away - even if I do have a bad hip. When I did my talk on Saturday afternoon, I started out saying something about that little rider at Mountaineer."

Sibille vows to remain active in an advisory capacity with the Jockeys' Guild. He is exploring opportunities with the new management team at the rejuvenated Evangeline Downs, just down the road from his farm in Sunset, La. And he will be taking his wife, Dot, along with his new hip for a week's vacation in Aruba in January, courtesy of Arlington Park chairman Dick Duchossois.

Still, Sibille wonders how he'll handle not being a jockey anymore. His old pal Delahoussaye gave him the best answer.

"He told me it will be a little hard in the beginning," Sibille said. "But don't worry about it. After about a month, he said I'll be wondering why I waited so long."