03/11/2002 12:00AM

Let the jockeys decide


ARCADIA, Calif. - Last Dec. 29, while riding at night at Los Alamitos after two mounts at Santa Anita during the day, jockey Iggy Puglisi fractured three vertebrae and his right knee in a two-horse crash.

On Feb. 21 at Santa Anita Park, leading local apprentice Elvis Trujillo sustained a fractured left wrist when his mount in the eighth race, Richillini, spooked at something and threw him in the walking ring.

On Feb. 24, at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan, perennial leading rider and national celebrity Yutaka Take was hospitalized after fracturing his pelvis. He was told he would be out at least three months.

On. Feb. 28, at Gulfstream Park, former Eclipse Award-winning apprentice Rosemary Homeister fractured her right arm when her mount in the second race, Tis Your Country, stumbled out of the gate. Homeister's arm already contains a steel plate from another injury.

On March 2, the day that more than $25 million was bet on the Santa Anita Handicap program, Fernando Valenzuela went down in the 11th and final race of the day and fractured his right arm.

Then last Saturday, within a 10-minute span, Terry Thompson was thrown at the start of the fifth race at Oaklawn Park, and Carlos Arias fell at the head of the stretch of the second race at Santa Anita when his mount veered into the turf course rail. Thompson, Oaklawn's leading rider, fractured a thumb that required surgery. Arias, riding only his sixth horse of the Santa Anita meet, dislocated his shoulder.

If there is a pattern to such random occurrences, it can only be identified in the broadest terms. Something basic, like, "Jockeys get hurt a lot." Well, duh.

For their trouble they are paid the going rate, which is around 10 percent of most purse placings, or a flat mount fee if they finish up the track. Some are rich, some are poor, and most of them want to do nothing else with their lives.

Self-preservation, however, is a priority, which brings us to another set of recent events.

Last month at Santa Anita, the jockey colony rose en masse to protest the condition of the main track. Earlier this month, riders at Sportsman's Park voted to cancel the last three races on the March 2 card when freezing rain and snow rendered the track unsafe. A horse had to fall before it happened.

Then, late on Sunday at Gulfstream Park, the last race of the day was switched from grass to dirt, causing an uproar among both horsemen and fans. Track president Scott Savin described the course as "firm and in fine condition," while several veteran riders disagreed, citing large clods and bad steps taken by their horses in earlier races.

We have heard this song before. There was a time when racetrack operators across the board would follow the Gulfstream model of blaming the riders for any disruption in a betting program. More often than not - when the track freezes or sinkholes appear or great pieces of a grass course are ripped to shreds - it is not the owners and trainers who have refused to run, or management who has decided to suspend the sport in the interests of both the public and participants. It is the jockeys who have refused to ride.

Let's face it. Jockeys make great scapegoats. As independent contractors without a strong players' union, they can be effectively divided by a single-minded management. If one of them walks, there are always a half-dozen ready to step up, each one hungrier than the last. There are ways of making them ride.

Of course, this makes no sense at all - except in the shortest of terms, for the track operators who count coins at the end of each day in the desperate hope they can pay the light bill. If conditions are deemed unsafe by the athletes who must perform under such conditions, where's the sense in forcing the issue? Jockeys are already predisposed to risk their lives in the name of a good show. Asking them to be suicidal is going a bit too far.

"You can walk a turf course all you want - stomp your feet and dig your heels - but that's the most useless thing you can do," said a veteran rider, who asked that his name not be used. This seemed to be a reasonable request, particularly when management loves to paint a bull's-eye on a labor loudmouth.

"You are never going to replicate a 1,200-pound toothpick landing at 38 miles an hour," he went on. "Those guys out there know what they're feeling, and if every third stride is toward the ground, and you've got to keep picking your horse up, eventually he's not carrying you. You're holding him up, and something's got to change."

Last month, Santa Anita track superintendent Steve Wood responded to the complaints of the local riders by listening. Simply listening. What he heard made sense. Wood added a watering after his main track harrowing, and the results have been praised. He continues to consult daily with various riders in the room.

It is not unreasonable to ask racetrack managements to take responsibility for playing conditions, especially when they reap the profits from a blood sport like horse racing. Jockeys will continue to get hurt. That's the nature of the business. But there is more to presenting this game than keeping the ambulances gassed up and tuned.