03/27/2004 12:00AM

Houghton finds his way back

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Terry Houghton has had a long, often painful, road back to the saddle. When the meet began in December, he'd been away from the game for 14 months after suffering serious head injuries in a spill at Great Lakes Downs in 2002, and it was uncertain whether he could compete with the other riders.

Houghton has erased all doubts. He started the meeting in the top five in the jockey standings, gradually moved up, and, just recently, moved into the top spot. Through Thursday, Houghton had won 71 races from 527 mounts, six more wins than Joe Judice, who won the title here last year.

Always known as a workhorse before his injury, one of the big questions surrounding Houghton's comeback was whether he would be able to handle the daily grind of a rider, working horses in the morning, then riding as many as nine or 10 horses during the afternoon.

Fatigue, however, has not been an issue. Houghton is riding as well, if not better, than he was before his spill. He still knows how to put his mounts in a position to win, and he looks as though he's finishing stronger and able to apply more pressure to his horses this year than he has in the past. He also remains one of the best at riding lower-priced claiming horses, and knows how to handle the old pros who have their share of problems. Houghton gives every horse an enthusiastic ride.

"When I came back I was prepared to just hope for the best, do the best I could, and sort of let the cards fall where they may," said Houghton. "I didn't know how I would be accepted by the racing community coming back after so long off. The trainers and owners have been great. They've been so supportive. I guess that's been the most heartening thing to me, the way people have supported me right from opening day. It's very gratifying."

Houghton said he feels he is riding better today than before he was injured.

"I really think I feel better on horses than before," he said. "I've become a little more patient, and I feel fresher and able to finish stronger than before. Before I went down, I'd been going like 11 months a year, year after year, and that took its toll. Like they say, a fresh horse is always dangerous, and I guess I'm a fresh horse these days."