03/05/2003 12:00AM

Injured Steiner laughs through pain

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Joe Steiner can be forgiven if he wonders what hit him.

In the space of six days, between the evening of Feb. 21 and the afternoon of Feb. 26, Steiner found himself alternatingly engulfed in worlds of pleasure, sadness, and pain. Life needs variety, but this was ridiculous.

At one point he was Hollywood Joe at a glitzy wrap party for the filming of "Seabiscuit," in which he doubled for Gary Stevens, who played the part of George Woolf.

The next thing Steiner knew, he was among the pallbearers at the funeral of his friend and mentor, Johnny Longden, as the legendary jockey was laid to rest after an injury-riddled life of 96 years.

Then finally, in the midst of a modest little race on a quiet weekday afternoon while riding for his old friend Martin Kenney, Steiner was sent head first into the sandy loam of an unforgiving Santa Anita main track when his horse took a tumble off the heels of another. The horse got up. Steiner did not.

"When you land like that, getting drilled, anything can happen," Steiner said a week later, after two rounds of surgery at Arcadia Methodist Hospital. "There was a lot of blood, and they got to me right away. I was lucky in so many ways."

It was truly raining riders last week at Santa Anita, where no fewer than five jockeys fell in four different incidents that cost the lives of two horses. Steiner's was the most terrifying, and he faces a recovery period of uncertain duration. Surgery was required to support the bone protecting his right eye, then a second procedure was performed on his shattered right heel.

"I don't always look this bad," Steiner said through cut and swollen lips as a group of visitors descended upon his hospital room.

Steiner's leading man jawline and piercing baby blues were obscured by throbbing, plum-purple bruises and assorted cuts that could have come straight out of the Jerry Quarry boxing catalog. Ever the optimist, Steiner tried hard to look on the brighter side.

"I'm kind of surprised my neck doesn't hurt at all," Steiner said, to which Chris McCarron replied:

"Don't worry, it will. Whiplash takes about a day to set in."

McCarron was among a host of riders, retired and otherwise, to pay a call. Omar Berrio came by, still tender from a severe leg bruise suffered in a fall the week before, as did Jose Valdivia, Eddie Delahoussaye, and even Matt Garcia, who was held responsible for the accident in the first place.

Garcia was given a 10-day suspension for crossing in front of Steiner's horse.

"He felt really bad," Steiner said. "It wasn't intentional. He just didn't use his head. All he had to do was pull out, or just stay where he was. He didn't realize I was in that spot, otherwise he wouldn't have done it. But you're supposed to know where everybody is out there."

For his part, Garcia responded by filing an appeal of his suspension and receiving an automatic stay from the California Horse Racing Board, pending a hearing. The leading candidate for idiotic racetrack rumor of the week soon followed, that Steiner would be testifying on Garcia's behalf in an attempt to mitigate the penalty.

Steiner's first reaction was laughter, and it was good to hear him laugh. A healthy sense of the absurd always helps the recovery process.

"I'm sorry," Steiner said, his battered face sore from hysterics, "but I would not even consider that. I really don't care what he gets - 10 days, ruled off for life, whatever. What is unfair is that I've got to suffer, and poor Martin Kenney has to pay for all this through his insurance."

Steiner will be hospitalized for awhile yet, as he learns to deal with the pain of his injuries and the pace of his recuperation. Jane, his wife of three years, has been at his side throughout the ordeal.

"It's not that your life flashes in front of you or anything," Steiner said. "But you do think of all the little things that make life worth living."

Riding Thoroughbreds, for Steiner, will still be one of them, in spite of the dangers.

"Absolutely it's worth it," he said. "It's just something you've got to do as long as you love to do it. Period. That's what life is all about."

Hospital mail call brought a stack of get well cards for Steiner, courtesy of a second grade class at Holy Angels Catholic School, across the street from the track.

Alex and Natalie provided self-portraits, while another card depicted a horse that looked like a bear with a muzzle and a broom for a tail.

"I've ridden a few that look like that," Steiner said, attempting to grin.

Brandi drew a rainbow, Kaila wished him a happy Valentine's Day, and Mikaela took pains to wonder, "I hope your horse is OK too!"

The topper, though, came from Christina, whose heartfelt sentiments had a bittersweet twist with the simple switch of a letter.

"I am sorry you got hurt!" she wrote. "I hope you fell better soon."

Steiner laughed again.

"You can always fall better," he said.