11/15/2007 12:00AM

Meier still going to the front at 53

Four-Footed Fotos
Randy Meier hit 4,000 wins this summer at Arlington, becoming just the 53rd rider to reach that milestone.
STICKNEY, Ill. - It was the sixth race here at Hawthorne last Saturday afternoon, and to many eyes, Alone at Last was running off with jockey Randy Meier. Down the backstretch of a two-turn turf race, Alone at Last opened up an eight-length lead, speeding through a half-mile in a seemingly suicidal 46.99 seconds.

"I passed the outrider at the half-mile pole, I looked at him, and he was laughing at me - laughing!" Meier said in a Wednesday morning interview at the Hawthorne track kitchen.

It was Meier, of course, who had the last laugh. The only time Alone at Last actually tried to run off was when Meier attempted to take a little hold of the horse turning into the backstretch. Feeling his mount resist, he let the horse do what was comfortable for him - and wired a high-end allowance race by 1 1/2 lengths.

There's a reason that the voice-mail greeting on Meier's cell phone offers this: "You've reached wire to wire with Randy Meier."

It's not only front-runners that are coming in for Meier at this Hawthorne meet - recently, it's been just about anything. When Meier hit 4,000 wins this summer at Arlington, becoming just the 53rd rider to reach that milestone, it was natural to expect him to begin easing into a slower-paced career, if not retirement itself. Instead, at age 53, Meier has been riding like a man half his age. Entering Wednesday's races here at Hawthorne, Meier had seized a narrow lead atop the jockey standings, with 39 wins so far this meet. Twenty-year-old Tim Thornton trails Meier by one win; Meier was 33 the year Thornton was born.

"You think I don't want to be leading rider against all these kids?" Meier said.

Meier, represented by agent Penny Ffitch-Heyes, actually has a decent chance to lead the meet. His recent surge has led to a major expansion in his business, and Meier has gone from a few stalwart supporters at Arlington to a whole host of clients at Hawthorne. All he needs to do is get through December unscathed - and that has not been easy.

Meier, who began riding in 1972 in his native Nebraska, has been plagued with injuries throughout his career, and December has been an especially dangerous month. In fact, Meier feels the 4,000-win milestone is all the more meaningful because of all the time lost to injuries and their aftermath.

"I sat down with my son a couple years ago," Meier said, referring to Brandon, an aspiring 19-year-old jockey, "and tried to count up all the broken bones."

The number he came up with was 47, and that was before Meier's latest injury, a broken navicular bone in his wrist. That injury is a slow one to heal, but nothing like the more brutal blows Meier's body has taken. The first serious one came in 1976 on a sub-zero day at Fonner Park. Meier was on the lead with a horse named Joust Abit Windy, who had won for him the week before.

"She broke both her legs, and one of mine," Meier said.

Meier was part of an infamous seven-horse spill in 1979 at Sportsman's Park. Just broke an arm there. In 1986, Meier's best friend on the track, Earlie Fires, had a horse break down, causing Meier's mount to go over the inside rail at Hawthorne. Meier's back cracked in three places, and he broke bones in a foot. The year before, Meier went down on the far turn at Sportsman's when his mount hit herself and fell.

"My face was blown up this big," Meier said, putting his hands three inches around his head. "I broke my sternum in two places."

In 1999, a 2-year-old, exhausted from racing over a route of ground for the first time, collapsed as Meier was coming back after a race. Broke his neck. Two years earlier, Meier broke both his legs in another spill.

Getting the picture? In one year, back in the early 80s, Meier hit the ground nine times during races. Fires offered to take out a life-insurance policy on him, and split it with Meier's wife. "I said. 'Thanks a lot, Earlie!'"

Meier can joke about the whole thing, but he feels the old wounds, especially after riding eight or nine races a day, five days a week this fall. After every spill there came the rehab, the push to get back into racing shape, and the need to build up lost business. This has happened over and over: Since 1997, Meier has had only one year, 2001, where he didn't miss time because of injury. Not coincidentally, that year was one of his best, with 185 winners and a career-best $4.9 million in purses.

Somehow, the injuries haven't broken his will, far from it, in fact. Hurt and confined to bed, Meier would watch his mounts win for other jockeys, and seethe. Not once, he said, did he come back worried about going down again.

"That's the big thing," Meier said. "You have to show them every time that you're not scared."

Already the all-time leading rider at both Hawthorne and Sportsman's, and with the 4,000-win mark behind him, Meier still evokes the sense that he has something to prove. While Meier has won nine graded stakes races, he rarely has ridden regularly outside Chicago, and never has been mentioned in the same breath as local Hall of Fame riders of his era like Fires, Pat Day, Jorge Velasquez, or Sandy Hawley. And Meier has been stamped as a front-end specialist from his first days riding the bullrings of Nebraska. But he has outlasted most of the jockeys of his generation, and still has an uncanny knack for getting run out of a horse - especially one on the lead.

"Who knows, I may be a better rider than what they thought," Meier said.