06/01/2010 11:00PM

The Mig did his hometown proud

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New York racing just got a $25 million loan bailout from the state, but it has also lost Richard Migliore, so at best it's a short-term push, although a long-term loss. Migliore's value to the franchise: priceless.

Athletes like Migliore come around only once in a very long while. If you operate a team blessed with one of them − or in this case a racing circuit − every day is a good PR day when they show up for work. Transcending the field of play, they become assets of civic proportions, every bit as important as clean streets and libraries.

Don't think so? Check out Chicago and Ernie Banks, Green Bay and Bart Starr, San Diego and Tony Gwynn. Boston had Bird. Baltimore had Cal. St. Louis had Stan the Man.

New York had The Mig.

California horse racing had the good luck to call Laffit Pincay its hometown boy for 35 years. That's 3 1/2 decades worth of good will and high performance, washed, pressed, and ready to wave at a moment's need. Business could dip and dive or scandals ebb and flow. That's life. At least there was always that message flashing on the racetrack marquee − "Laffit Works Here."

Just as Pincay was not able to dictate the terms of his retirement, after his back and neck injuries of early 2003, now Migliore has reached the end of the line against his deepest will. Fitted with a stiff neck brace, he appeared at Belmont Park on Wednesday to describe the extent of his recent surgery to fuse five cervical disks and to relay the verdict from physicians that he must never compete again, or else.

It was the or else, as it pertained to Migliore's wife, Carmela, and four children, that sealed the deal. Otherwise, Migliore would still be negotiating with his body for one more chance to ride. For Mig, there was always business left undone.

For starters, Migliore never won the Belmont Stakes. Never had much of a chance, really. He had just six mounts through the many years and a couple of fourth-place finishes to show for the effort. History will frown on such a record, with the race taking place in his backyard. But for the purposes of this tribute, let's just write it off as an embarrassment to owners and trainers who failed to provide New York's Richard Migliore with a viable runner in New York's most famous event.

Migliore did win such prestigious events as the Pacific Classic, the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, Florida Derby, the Spinster, the De Francis Dash, and most of New York's finest at least once, including the Beldame, the Wood, the Manhattan, the Go for Wand, the Carter, the Man o' War, the Tom Fool, the Personal Ensign, and the Brooklyn Handicap, which will be run for the 122nd time Friday.

As a scrappy Brooklyn kid, Mig got to see the race named for his borough won by Key to the Mint, Riva Ridge, and then Forego, Forego, Forego. By then the hook was set, and before his 16th birthday Migliore was on the Belmont backstretch, asking Steve DiMauro for a job.

"There were plenty of young guys coming around," said DiMauro, trainer of champions Wajima, Dearly Precious, and Lady Pitt. "He just had that little extra thing you need to be successful. He was obviously a natural, because he learned fast, and when he learned, he learned well. He was young, but he handled situations well. And I kept his temper down, which could have gone the other way."

DiMauro's son, also Steve, worked for his father at the time. He now trains in Florida.

"My dad put him through it all," the younger DiMauro said. "He made him go to the farm, work in stall, gallop the horses − from top to bottom. Richie never thought it would come soon enough, but when my dad thought it was time, he put him on horses to ride.

"And yes, he did live at the barn for a while," he said. "His first apartment, we rented together, and he was a good roommate. His wife, Carmela, was working for my father at the time. It was love at first sight and continued on from there."

"I know he'll get through this okay," added the elder DiMauro. "It could have been a lot worse. He'll get there . . . wherever he wants to go."

Wherever Migliore goes from here, it won't be far. For him, New York is a state of grace. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center − Migliore lost a cousin by marriage in the collapse − he bristled at the idea he would ever be called a "hometown hero."

"People bandy about that word 'hero' way too much," Migliore said. "Sure, there are inherent risks in what I do. But the risks I take aren't selfless risks. There's monetary rewards. There's glory.

"Then there are guys who run into burning buildings to save lives," he said. "Guys who run toward the bullets, not away from them, to protect and save people's lives at the risk of their own. You can never compare an athlete to what they do, because an athlete has his own agenda. I'm just a guy who's lucky enough to get paid to do something I really enjoy."

After his bad luck broken leg in October 2005, when a loose horse plowed into his mount in the Belmont paddock, Migliore was cheated out of winning the Breeders' Cup Mile one week later aboard Artie Schiller. Since it didn't kill him − either the fracture or the disappointment − Migliore was left with the alternative.

"I was looking around the hospital last night and thinking, 'I wouldn't trade with any of these people,' " he said a couple of days after the accident. "My situation wasn't great, and the timing was bad. But it's not the end of the world. I've just got to pick my head up and do what I do − get stronger and come back better."

Migliore came back, that time as he did time after time, and by the end of the line he had won 4,450 races, 12 New York titles, the Venezia Award, the Woolf Award, and the respect of horsemen, riders, and fans from coast to coast. Like he said, he will get stronger. I'm just not sure Richie Migliore could be any better.