02/28/2002 1:00AM

Jockey Bush is back - and riding winners


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Tuesday's fifth-race victory by jockey Vernon Bush aboard Al Bark came against five rivals, but also over some physical and mental demons.

A five-time leading Suffolk Downs jockey in the early 1980's, Bush has always had tremendous talent and ability, but his career has been hampered by off-track difficulties.

His latest comeback at age 40, comes after seven months of adjusting his lifestyle around a new diet.

With weight problems the root cause for much of his past stress, Bush is optimistic about the future.

"When I finished the fairs last summer, I was fighting the weight so much I really didn't think I would ever ride again," he said, alluding to the return of racing to the Brockton bull-ring, where jockeys could tack at high weights. "My agent got me on this diet and I've managed to go from 152 pounds down to 122."

He also credits his agent, Lisa Welsch, for helping him take the weight off gradually, rather than to use more drastic methods. The diet allows Bush to eat three meals a day, and gives him the energy to ride as strongly as he has in the past.

"A lot of people have been waiting until I was ready," Bush said. "They've been very supportive, and Lisa has been very supportive. She's pulled me through some tough times along the way, times when I'd become discouraged."

Bush's victory Tuesday seemed like a stakes victory, complete with celebratory fist pumps, what looked like a prayer, and a pat on the back from fellow jockey Jeffrey Burningham, who is also represented by Welch.

"I have a lot to be thankful for, and I was thanking everyone coming under the wire," said Bush. "It was great, too, because each time I've made some kind of comeback, it's been aboard a horse for [trainer] Kevin Clark."

Clark saddled Al Bark for trainer David Savery, who was with his wife while she undergoes cancer treatments. Clark's wife, Susan, is also Al Bark's co-owner, along with Norman Walsh.

Bush says that he is not yet 100 percent, which means riding at 115 pounds, and isn't in a rush to take more mounts despite Tuesday's victory. In Suffolk's new-look jockey colony a fit and veteran Bush could be a dominating presence.

"It's nice to get back out there and know you can do it," he said. "This is not the same group of jockeys as I remember in New England. It seems like everyday there's a new face, and a lot of these guys are kids taking a stepping-stone for their careers. I came up with guys like Carl Gambardella and Norman Mercier. This colony is good, but it's not the kind I remember around here."

* Rockingham Park executives are heading to Florida for their annual recruitment trip of horsemen and horses. Director of racing Bobby DeStasio and racing secretary James Pambianchi will travel to South Florida Monday for three days of meeting and greeting and to pass out condition books to horsemen, then head to Tampa Bay Downs March 8 for the same purpose. Rockingham's summer meet is scheduled to start June 9.