05/22/2001 12:00AM

McGurn's career shifts into high gear

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - In 1991, Craig McGurn, a struggling jockey, all but quit riding and took a full-time job as a truck driver. Now, 10 years later, McGurn is winning races again.

He isn't a leading rider. In fact, he is still driving a truck full time. But the 41-year-old McGurn is winning races at Golden Gate and Bay Meadows. He is 7 for 28 this year, with 4 seconds, and he's catching the eye of more and more trainers.

Despite having a job driving a truck, McGurn never gave up riding altogether.

"I always kept galloping horses in the mornings and drove the truck from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.," McGurn said. "I didn't want to quit. I rode a few on weekends, holidays, any days I could, but they were all huge longshots. I just won a few on the fairs. I was never ready to let go of it. Riding is something I'd wanted to do since I was 16."

McGurn, who began riding in 1980, had some early success, but could never quite catch on in northern California, where his family is and where he grew up. He did well in Nebraska riding for D. Wayne Lukas, whose string there was overseen by assistant trainer Barry Knight, and he also won races at Hawthorne near Chicago and at Turf Paradise in Phoenix.

"I kept coming back here and trying to catch on," McGurn said. "In 1989 I just decided to stay here. I did well on the fairs but could never get rolling at the main meets [Golden Gate and Bay Meadows]. In 1991 I went to a six-week school and got a Class A license to drive a rig, and got a job with a friend who owned a trucking company. I have good benefits, a retirement plan and all that. And they've been good to me. When I have a chance to ride, they let me take a vacation day."

McGurn is fit enough to survive what can be 12-hour work days. Running has helped him keep his weight down, and for the last seven years he has competed in the Bay to Breakers, a 7 1/2-mile race in San Francisco that lures about 80,000 runners every year. "I usually finish in the top 1,500," McGurn said.

McGurn's personal and professional lives took turns for the better in 1999. At the suggestion of one of his friends, Teresa Luppins, who worked for trainer Brent Sumja, McGurn took a job as exercise rider for Sumja. McGurn and Luppins later married, his second marriage.

McGurn rode the horse Superman's Cape in two races for Sumja, and the horse finished second and then won before being claimed. After that, McGurn began working with the Sumja-trained Tribal Note, a European import who was tough to handle and, in fact, had to be broken twice.

Sumja insisted McGurn work Tribal Note and then asked McGurn to ride him. Tribal Note finished second the first time McGurn rode him and then they won two in a row. They were bottom-of-the-barrel races, but the victories got McGurn some attention - and more mounts.

"He's a hard horse to ride," McGurn said of Tribal Note. "You have to ride him all the way. I saw [trainer] Dennis Ward after that and he said, 'You're pretty fit, gallop boy.' Later, he put me on a horse who had bolted the first time, named Surprise Halo. He let me work the horse to show me it was just a freak deal, and then let me ride him. The horse won, and Dennis said, 'I got some other horses I want you to ride.' "

Shortly after that, trainer Art Sherman put McGurn on a horse who finished second at 30-1. "That opened the door to his barn," McGurn said.

McGurn still has a long way to go before he can quit his truck-driving job, but he has arranged to take a leave of absence to ride the summer fair meets. With several prominent trainers ready to give him mounts and with some of the top jockeys to ride elsewhere, McGurn is looking forward to winning races at the fair meets.

"I've always been here," McGurn said, referring to the racetrack. "But it's like I've been reborn."