04/20/2008 11:00PM

Jockeys find way back to top

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Hollywood Park season opens Wednesday, kicking off a meet that will feature the return of Lava Man, groups like Smithereens and English Beat at Friday night concerts, and two red-hot jockeys fresh from fabulous closing-day afternoons at Santa Anita last Sunday.

One of them, of course, is Rafael Bejarano. The 25-year-old native of Peru seized his first Santa Anita title with a flourish by winning four races Sunday, including the San Juan Capistrano aboard Big Booster, to beat Garrett Gomez 67-63.

Gomez, whose services were required at Keeneland, did not ride as a regular during the final three weeks of the Santa Anita meet. This could be held against Bejarano, perhaps diluting his title, if it were not for the fact that the Peruvian missed three weeks himself recuperating from two fractured vertebrae.

Bejarano went down on March 13 when his horse, the 3-year-old Parisian Art, collapsed in the stretch and died. Those who witnessed Bejarano's considerable pain in the emergency room of Arcadia Methodist Hospital that day could be excused if they thought he would be on the sidelines for awhile. (It is worthwhile to note that, in the midst of his distress, Bejarano kept asking about the fate of his horse.)

Bejarano's rapid return, through intense rehabilitation and the advantage of a strong constitution, can be described as nothing less than miraculous. No one should ever be surprised when a jockey defies such odds. Still, each time it happens it sheds bright light on their ability to ignore discomfort in the pursuit of career, and Bejarano had plenty of motivation. At the time he went down, their names included Heatseeker, Country Star, Golden Doc A, Georgie Boy, and Ginger Punch.

Two hours before Bejarano posed atop Big Booster, Ignacio Puglisi was soaring through a celebration of his own. At $26,000, the sixth race on the program was a starter allowance that carried a purse worth one-tenth of the $250,000 San Juan. And at 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf, it involved a mile's less work. But from Puglisi's reaction, you'd have thought he'd just nailed Shoemaker on the wire for nothing less than the Kentucky Derby.

Splitting horses late, Puglisi got the California-bred mare Princess Integrity up by three-quarters of a length for trainer Jeffrey Coleman. For Princess Integrity, it was her first victory since February 2007. For Puglisi, it was his first winner in two years.

Two years.

For a professional athlete, especially a self-employed jockey, this represents a deadly eternity. If a rider disappears from the winning charts for two years, he'd better have a good excuse and Hall of Fame stats, otherwise there are plenty of fresh faces to come along and establish a beachhead in the vacuum.

Puglisi, the man they call Iggy, won the Longacres Mile aboard Irisheyesareflying in August 2001, but then went down in late December at Los Alamitos, when a $5,000 Thoroughbred claimer fell at the start. The rider fractured his right knee and three vertebrae that night.

Puglisi made it back, winning the WinStar Oaks on Island Fashion in 2003, but business was slow and he began to migrate from track to track, seeking a niche. When he reinjured his right knee in 2005, the repair cost him another 15 months on the sidelines.

Born in Argentina, Puglisi was raised in Temple City, right next door to Santa Anita Park. He began riding at 16 and won his first race at Playfair, in Washington, then became a regular on the circuit that includes Northlands Park in the summer and Turf Paradise in the winter.

By the time he returned to Southern California, Puglisi was a seasoned journeyman with good contacts and an upbeat personality, along with a collection of tattoos that leads the local room in the category of serious ink. (Full disclosure - among the images is a dead-on representation of the Daily Racing Form logo stretched between Puglisi's shoulder blades, which was revealed only after the decision was made to feature him in this column.)

When Puglisi is not at work as a jockey he is a full-time racing fan. His work as an analyst on the TVG racing network during his recuperation tapped into his passion for the game and kept his name in the mix. Puglisi also has become the go-to work jockey for any number of top trainers who have entrusted him with such stakes stars as Georgie Boy, Idiot Proof, and Barbecue Eddie.

Unfortunately, the pay isn't as good in the morning, and Puglisi still has the chops and the burning desire to make it in the afternoon.

"You don't know how good that felt," Puglisi said Sunday, toweling off after his win. "To get that off my back, and to hope that maybe now people will see I can still win if I get the chance."

It was hard to ignore, advertising you can't buy, even in the . At 29-1, Princess Integrity was the longest shot in the field. And for good measure, the rider of runner-up Rapid Goose was no less than Bejarano, the leading man.

Looks like Iggy is back.