12/13/2003 12:00AM

Houghton's comeback begins

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - At about 2 p.m. Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, jockey Terry Houghton was in the starting gate aboard a Thoroughbred for the first time in about 14 months. He wound up finishing eighth aboard Ginger Roo in the fourth race.

Considering what happened to Houghton a little over a year ago, it was probably the sweetest eighth-place finish of his career.

Houghton was kicked in the head after falling in a race at Great Lakes Downs. The blow to the head caused brain hemorrhaging for several days, and a neurologist told Houghton he was amazed the jockey survived those crucial first days.

His vision and balance were severely impaired, to the point where Houghton's mother and sister had to care for the rider and assist him during four-hour therapy sessions three days a week. He took speech and memory classes, worked on the balance beam, along with other therapy exercises, and after six months was able to drive a car. But because of memory loss associated with his injuries, Houghton had to go back and complete driver's training and take another driver's test.

"There was just so much I couldn't remember, I had to learn it all over again," he said.

Houghton, 33, also recalls taking his daughter to the zoo and struggling to remember the names of the animals.

"I knew I had seen them before but I had no clue of the names," he said.

Houghton kept pressing on, and this fall, contrary to the advice of his neurosurgeon, began to get on horses again.

"There were people in rehab that had been in car accidents and they didn't tell them they couldn't drive a car again," Houghton said. "To me, riding horses is like other people driving cars."

Houghton's longtime agent, Frank Garoufalis, gave up last year's leading rider, Joe Judice, to return as Houghton's agent.

"Terry and I have been together a long time," Garoufalis said. "If he thinks he can come back and compete, that's good enough for me."

It won't be an easy task getting back to the top at Tampa this winter. Judice returns, and Jesus Castanon, who finished second in the standings last season, will also be back. So will Derek Bell, leading rider here in the 2000-01 season, who recently captured the riding title at Canterbury for the third time in the last four years.0

Others who figure to be a factor in the jockey race include Oliver Castillo, who was among the leaders in the jockeys' race behind national races-won leader Ramon Dominguez at Delaware Park this summer; Juan Umana, who seems to come to life here every winter; and Russell Woolsey, who enjoyed his best meeting ever here last winter and spring.

If Houghton can resume his career and become leading rider, it would be icing on the cake. For now, a successful return would be Houghton showing he can compete with the track's top riders and win races.