04/24/2002 12:00AM

Maple: From racing to retail


HUNTINGTON, N.Y. - When Eddie Maple, whose career accomplishments have landed him on this year's Hall of Fame ballot, called it quits four years ago after riding 4,398 career winners, he didn't remain in racing as an official or jockey agent, as many retired riders do.

Maple, 53, chose a different path and opened Camden Passage, an upscale gift and home design store, with his wife of 31 years, Kate. The 3,000-square foot shop is in the bustling town of Huntington on Long Island's North Shore and typically sells wedding or holiday gifts. For the Maples, it is a full-time job and a successful business. When they aren't on the road hunting for one-of-a-kind items to stock their store, they are waiting on customers.

Maple was a regular on the New York circuit for three decades, and his mounts topped $105 million in earnings. He retired on Memorial Day in 1998.

"I just didn't like the way things were going," Maple said recently of his decision to quit riding. "I felt good physically, but I was 49. I had to look at these guys coming up who were 17, 18, and 19. I was ready to take another road."

A second career in racing didn't interest Maple, so he decided to support Kate in her desire to open Camden Passage.

"I don't think anyone enjoyed themselves more than me when I was riding," said Maple. "But it was time to giddyap and do something different. And I'm glad I did."

Kate Maple met her husband when when she was galloping horses at Monmouth Park in the late 1960's. They have two grown sons, Eddie Jr. and Iver, and Kate Maple said she prefers their new life to the racetrack.

"There was the danger thing," Kate Maple said. "I never went to the track. I couldn't watch a race; it was nerve-racking. Also, you don't get as emotionally involved. If someone comes into the store and doesn't want to buy something, it's not, 'Oh, my God,' like when you lost a mount on a horse. Racing is heart wrenching."

Maple, who weighs 115 pounds, is only a few pounds above his riding weight. He won more than 40 stakes during the 1990's, including the 1995 Arlington Million on Awad, but he is best remembered for his work in the 1970's and 1980's when he won scores of New York's best races, including the Belmont (twice), Metropolitan Handicap (three times), Travers (twice), and Suburban (twice). Maple upset the mighty Forego three times, with Arbees Boy in the 1974 Metropolitan, Foolish Pleasure in the 1976 Suburban, and Quiet Little Table in the 1977 Suburban.

Maple won his first race in 1966 at Ascot Park in his native Ohio, but he quickly set his sights on New York.

"If you want to be anything in this game, you have to end up in New York," Maple said. "Not California, not Chicago, it was New York."

Maple rode in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, Delaware, Florida, and New Jersey before arriving in New York in 1971.

Maple eventually hooked up with Woody Stephens, the Hall of Fame trainer who became Maple's most influential supporter. Maple rode many champions for Stephens, including Conquistador Cielo, De La Rose, Devil's Bag, and Swale. In 1985, Maple piloted Creme Fraiche to victory in the 1985 Belmont Stakes to give Stephens his fourth consecutive win in the classic.

Maple also won the 1980 Belmont for trainer Joe Cantey on Temperence Hill at 53-1.

Sandwiched between Maple's Belmont wins were some bitter disappointments. Maple was injured in a spill the day before the 1982 Belmont and watched from his hospital bed as Conquistador Cielo, whom he rode five days earlier to win the Metropolitan Handicap for Stephens, captured the Belmont by 14 lengths under Laffit Pincay Jr.

The next year, Pincay won the Belmont on the Stephens-trained Caveat, a mount Maple lost when he chose to ride Chumming in the Kentucky Derby.

In 1984, Pincay won the Derby and Belmont for Stephens on Swale, a horse Maple turned down for Stephens's 2-year-old champion, Devil's Bag, who was retired before the Derby.

In 1991, Maple accepted a six-month contract from Italian businessman Anthony Balzarini to ride in Italy. Balzarini terminated the contract after three months, and Maple, who said Balzarini's move was precipitated by several horses in the stable becoming injured, came home later that year. Upon his return, he went through the worst dry spell of his career.

Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who used Maple on some of his stakes runners during the 1990's, including champion Sky Beauty, said Maple was an astute judge of a horse's ability.

"He was a likeable guy who was willing to work hard in the mornings," Jerkens said. "He told me early on Sky Beauty was a good one."

Among Maple's 33,974 career mounts, one horse - whom he rode only once - made a lasting impression. Maple was aboard Secretariat for his final race, in the 1973 Canadian International at Woodbine. Maple picked up the mount because Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's regular rider, was serving a suspension. Secretariat won the grass race by 6 1/2 lengths.

"He was a monster, monster, monster," said Maple, who was 25 at the time. "Going to the gate, his feet weren't even hitting the ground.

"I was a celebrity because I rode Secretariat. Up until then, I hadn't won anything of any significance outside of the Florida Derby and a bunch of $50,000 races."

Maple shares the Hall of Fame ballot with Kent Desormeaux and the late Jack Westrope. The vote will be announced Tuesday, during Kentucky Derby week.

"The Hall of Fame is something I think about a lot," Maple said. "I mean a lot."