03/30/2002 12:00AM

New role keeps Baez in the action

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Suffolk Downs has named many of its stakes for local legends, past regional champions, and prominent figures in the track's history. Rudy Baez is all of those things, and he is still leaving his mark on the local sport despite being confined to a wheelchair for the past 2 1/2 years.

When Baez severed his spinal cord in a racing accident in August 1999, he had won seven straight riding titles at Suffolk and 10 overall at Rockingham Park. He had won five or more winners on a card dozens of times and had graded stakes wins to his credit. He was a star in New England racing circles.

Baez has taken on a new role, both at the track and in the wider community, since his accident. Two days a week, he is a special assistant to the clerk of scales in the Suffolk jockeys' room and acts as a mentor to many of the young riders. He also likes to get into get into the specially fitted car the track presented him on a day held in his honor in May 2000 and travel throughout the area helping to inspire others who have suffered debilitating injuries.

"I go and speak to kids," said Baez. "I go and try to tell them not to give up. The rehab places called me and said to come any time. They said, 'There are some kids there that really want to see you.' That keeps me going, and I like that. I like to give back something."

Baez always pointed to faith and hard work as the reasons for his success as a jockey. The same was true in his rehabilitation.

A strict workout regimen has helped Baez build a strong upper body. But according to Baez, his time in the gym has yielded other important results.

"I have to go to the gym every day." he said. "It keeps my body in good shape, but it also keeps my mind in good shape. If you stop working out and let your body fall off, your mind is going to fall off and you're just going to feel lousy. There are too many people like that and they just feel awful."

This is part of the message Baez spreads on his trips to Massachusetts General Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, and the Woburn Rehabilitation Clinic - three facilities in which he was a patient in the months after his accident.

Baez refused to be negative about his fate. Judy Baez, his wife of 22 years, said he greeted her with a fist pump, thankful to be alive, when she first saw him after his surgery.

He would later be transferred to the Kessler Rehabilitation Clinic in New Jersey to learn to cope with his paralysis. He stayed in the same room that actor Christopher Reeve stayed in while recovering from a horse-riding accident that left him a quadriplegic. Baez and Reeve would exchange inspiring messages during Baez's 11 weeks there.

When Baez returned home to Wakefield, Mass., he was presented an award by the New England Turf Writers for his achievements in racing. His heartfelt words that night are echoed in his upbeat words today.

"I've got a wife, my kids, my whole family, and nice friends, and they're all behind me. I just thank God," said Baez. "I tell myself, thank God that there was someone there to stand behind me and help me through."

In addition to working in the jockeys' room, Baez also helps the Suffolk Downs publicity office with group functions, offering expert advice to novice fans. His two part-time jobs at the track allow Baez to remain a part of racing without being too demanding on his time.

"I love to give advice about horses and that stuff, but I know that training horses or even being a jockey's agent would take too big a piece of my life. I've worked hard and I want to enjoy myself now," Baez said.