01/02/2007 12:00AM

For Lopez, nothing beats being in front

Sarah K. Andrew/Equiphotos
Chuck C. Lopez hugs his son Erick after the 19-year-old's first ride, which came in October.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Torn rotator cuff. Broken pinkie. Cracked rib. Fractured wrist. Another broken pinkie.

That is the laundry list of injuries suffered by jockey C.C. Lopez in a 24-month period beginning in September 2004. Frustrating? Certainly. Frustrating enough for the 46-year-old rider to consider finding another line of work? Hardly.

"The horses make all the difference in the world in how you feel,'' Lopez said between races recently at Aqueduct. "If they're running, you're as good as any young kid out here that's 20 or 25. But when they're not running, it gets difficult. I think horse for horse, jockey for jockey, I'm as good as anybody that's out there.''

Those following Aqueduct racing this winter would be hard-pressed to argue. Since the inner track opened on Nov. 29, Lopez has won 25 races from 111 mounts. That puts him third in the standings behind Ramon Dominguez (34 for 148) and Eibar Coa (29 for 135).

Five of Lopez's 25 inner-track wins have come for Linda Rice, who had been using Cornelio Velasquez on a regular basis before he left for south Florida.

"C.C. just arrived at the perfect time,'' Rice said. "I think he rides the inner track as well as anybody because it's similar to Monmouth, Meadowlands. It's a little bit speed biased, and I think C.C.'s one of the best gate riders in the country, and I think that's a big edge.''

Speed is the name of Lopez's game. He likes to be in front early just as much as he does late.

"That taking back and getting dirty, that's for somebody else,'' Lopez said. "I like my front-end status; I'm comfortable with my one-dimensional self. I think a horse that's in front, if you give them less to do it's better. If you get to the front, not only do you dictate your pace, but there are no traffic problems. The less I give my horse to do the less I have to do to get him to the winner's circle.''

Lopez has gotten to the winner's circle 3,482 times in a career that began in 1979. He has never won a Grade 1 race, and has won just three Grade 2 stakes. He names the talented sprinter Gators n Bears as the best horse he has ridden.

Perhaps, Lopez may be sitting on something even better. On Dec. 9, Lopez rode Johannesburg Star to a front-running 9 1/2-length victory in mile and 70-yard maiden race. The colt earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure - the third best of any 2-year-old in 2006. After owner Bisnath Parboo and trainer Joe Park reportedly turned down $2 million for the colt, Johannesburg Star is scheduled to run in Saturday's $65,000 Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct. Three years ago, Smarty Jones made his 3-year-old debut in the Count Fleet en route to the Kentucky Derby.

Lopez is not making reservations for Louisville just yet.

"I'm not delusional,'' Lopez said. "I've seen horses do that once or twice; it's wrong in my opinion to project. Anytime you project you set yourself up. I just want to have fun. If he's going to win the Count Fleet, great, he's going to win the Count Fleet. If he's going to win the Wood, then fantastic, he's going to win the Wood. Are we going to the Derby? Great, we're going to the Derby. I'm going to ride him just like I did every other horse I've ever ridden, just like I would a $25,000 horse. I'm going to leave there running, I'm going to place him, and I'm going to have fun.''

Lopez was not having a lot of fun beginning Sept. 11, 2004 when he tore his rotator cuff. He returned to ride in New Jersey during the summer of 2005 before suffering a broken finger and cracked rib at Aqueduct the day after Thanksgiving. On Jan. 25, 2005, three days after returning from those injuries, Lopez fell again and broke his wrist.

He returned late in the Gulfstream Park meet and rode injury free until September, when he broke a finger in a spill at Monmouth. On Dec. 6, Lopez was aboard a horse at Aqueduct who simply fell in the stretch, but Lopez was uninjured. Lopez won the next race he rode in and has been on a roll since.

"It's an occupational hazard,'' Lopez said. "If you want to ride and you're successful and you ride the amount of horses that I ride or any successful rider rides, you're going to fall. You may not get hurt but you're going to fall, so I accept it.''

Chuck Lopez, who was born in Brooklyn but who now commutes to New York from central New Jersey, comes from a family of jockeys. His father, Charles Sr., and three of his brothers have ridden. C.C.'s son Erick is now riding and on Sunday won his first career race at Aqueduct.

"It was great,'' said the elder Lopez, who watched the race from the Aqueduct jocks' room. "Now I know how my dad felt and how Alfredo Smith - who works here - felt when his son Ariel won.''

Lopez said he neither encouraged nor discouraged his son from riding, but said it was somewhat surprising he chose that path because he has other skills.

"He likes to draw, he's a magnificent cook, he has other abilities,'' Lopez said. "This riding thing was kind of spur of the moment because right up until two years ago he was going into the culinary arts.''

In spite of his recent success, Lopez does not envision competing for the inner-track riding title. He just wants to win as many races as he can, have fun, and stay on his feet.

"I'm not trying to be leading rider,'' he said. "It would be great if it happened, just like [Johannesburg Star], if he wins all those races and I happen to be on his back when it happens, great. I just want to have fun, I just want to ride, and I don't want to get hurt anymore.''