06/03/2002 12:00AM

Injury stops new, improved Bravo

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - It was 11:15 last Thursday morning, and the jockeys' room at Monmouth Park was quiet as riders and valets began to trickle in. Joe Bravo, the meet's eight-time riding champion, was already at his locker, raring to go on an ordinary weekday card.

Bravo was off to the best start of his career, having won 20 races in seven days, including six on a single program that started a 10-win weekend, May 18-19. In winning six races, he equaled the track record and became the first jockey to accomplish the feat twice at Monmouth. Bravo, 32, was as excited as a bug boy, and he credited his success to an unexpected source.

"The injury has been a godsend," Bravo said Thursday morning, referring to the leg injury he suffered last July that sidelined him eight months. "My mindset has been 100 percent different.

"Before the injury, a six-win day would have been just another day in the office," Bravo said. "The old Joe Bravo, after winning six races, would have been out all night partying on the Jersey Shore. The new Joe Bravo went home, ordered in, relaxed, and handicapped the next day's races. I'm just thankful to be doing so well after the injury."

In only four hours, Bravo's outstanding meet came to a crashing end.

In the seventh race, Bravo swerved his mount, Oh My Pretty Halo, going into the clubhouse turn after Mato and jockey Eibar Coa took a spill. Bravo was thrown from his mount and landed on his left arm, breaking his wrist. He faces three to four months of rehab that will test the new strength he found since injuring his leg last summer.

Is there any way to find optimism in this injury, as he did when he hurt his leg?

"I just don't know right now," Bravo said from his home Sunday, after being released from the hospital. "There must be some reason why this happened."

Regardless of the reason, the effect was devastating. He was on pace to eclipse the meet record of 171 wins set by Chris Antley and had set a goal to join the country's top tier of jockeys.

Regarding his leg injury, Bravo on Thursday morning said: "I never worked to be better as a jockey before the injury. I never had to think about it. Racing had become pretty easy. After 15 years it turned too much into a job. The injury changed all that.

"I want to fly around and ride Grade 1's. I want to keep pushing the envelope. I want to step up to the plate, to the major leagues. This could be the summer to push me to the next level. I'm not going to let anything get in my way."

Now, Bravo will have to wait.