12/19/2007 12:00AM

Life begins at 40 for rookie rider

EmailSTICKNEY, Ill. - Sylvia Harris won the first race of her career as a jockey on Dec. 1 at Hawthorne. At age 40, it's a little late to be calling Harris an up-and-coming rider. But with a troubled past trailing behind her, the mere fact of her having made the races is pretty incredible.

Harris, a native of Sonoma County in Northern California, did not grow up around horses, her only connection to racing being occasional trips to the track with her father. She was athletic as a kid, running track and doing gymnastics, but her parents drew the line at riding - too dangerous.

"I held a grudge against them for that until the day before I won my first race," Harris said.

That afternoon, she witnessed up close a terrible spill that sent the apprentice rider Lyndie Wade into a coma. Yes, you really could get yourself badly hurt on horseback. Harris almost called off her first-ever "live" mount the next day, but she pushed through the fear, and scored a blowout win with her 17th career ride in a low-level claimer on a horse named Wildwood Pegasus.

Harris mainly is making her living as an exercise rider in Chicago. She has been here since 2005, and has worked steadily for more than two years - which qualifies as the longest period of stability in her adult life. Harris said that at age 18, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that creates peaks of euphoric feeling, and deep lows of depression. The illness, Harris said Wednesday in the Hawthorne jockeys' room, kept her from holding down steady work, and led to her three children - now ranging in age from 14 to 18 - to mainly grow up away from their mother.

Harris said her life had bottomed out five years ago, when, homeless in Florida, she managed to land a job at a horse farm of the noted owner and breeder Eugene Hubeck. It was a weird situation. No one at the farm was particularly eager to teach Harris how to ride, and she basically was thrown on the back of a horse without a firm grasp of horsemanship.

Harris readily admits she still has much to learn. "They're still running off with me, but not so much anymore," she said.

Granted a jockey's license last summer, Harris found herself exhausted after her first actual rides. She said she has gained fitness, and grown more comfortable with the rush of a race.

As a woman, an African-American, and a much older person than the typical apprentice rider, Harris hardly has traveled a greased path. She may not firmly latch on as a jockey, but racetrack life has at last given Harris a firm foundation for the first time in 20 years.

"You know, a lot of bipolar people don't want to take their medication, because they don't want to give up those highs," Harris said. "When I won my first race, there was that big rush, and I said, 'Yes, this is it.' "

DiVito ships two to Mountaineer

The Coaches of Chicago are invading Mountaineer Racetrack on Saturday night. Trainer Jim DiVito has entered the talented 2-year-old West Coast Coach in an open allowance race there, and a half-hour later, Coach Jimi Lee, the crack older sprinter, will try to rebound from a disappointing Churchill Downs comeback race in his last start.

* Jockeys Eddie Razo and Israel Ocampo will ride no more at this Hawthorne meet. Ocampo must return to Mexico to have his visa stamped, and will head to Oaklawn Park for the rest of the winter when he returns to the U.S. Razo is taking a short break, and also will surface at Oaklawn in early January.

* A decent field of eight 2-year-olds was entered in the featured sixth race on Friday, an entry-level sprint allowance also open to $50,000 claimers. The pick is Camaraderie, who needed four tries to win a maiden race, but looked good when he finally broke through here Dec. 1.