09/15/2004 11:00PM

Next time, call Bob Vila


POMONA, Calif. - Hurricane Frances cost 18 lives and did as much as $10 billion in damage to Florida and south Georgia when it made landfall in early September. The ferocious storm rendered more than three million homes without power, caused more than $54 million in citrus crop losses, and even wreaked havoc at the Kennedy Space Center, where a launch was canceled and a thousand panels were ripped from the exterior of the landmark Vehicle Assembly Building.

Oh, yes. And the nation's leading jockey fell off a ladder and broke his left wrist.

As Frances bore down on Miami-Dade, Thoroughbred racing's one and only Jerry Bailey, a freshly turned 47, took time out from his Saratoga season to join thousands of worried south Florida homeowners in battening down the hatches. That is how he happened to be standing at the top of a ladder in the doorway of his home on the morning of Sept. 1 . . . . but let him tell it:

"Our home has hurricane glass, so I don't need to do anything to the windows," Bailey said when reached in Florida on Wednesday. "But the front door has that decorative leaded glass, so that was the only place I had to put up the storm shutters.

"There are already screws in place around the door, sunk into the house itself. All you have to do is take the screws out, put the shutters up, and put the screws back in. Well, one of the screws wouldn't come out, and it was the very top one. I pulled and pulled, and it finally came out - kind of like two guys pulling on a rope and one of them lets go.

"My father-in-law was holding the ladder for me," Bailey continued. "But instead of jumping over him and landing on my feet, we got tangled up and I ended up going head first. I had to put my hands out to break my fall."

There are 206 bones in the human body. Amazingly, Bailey managed to break only two: the navicular, or scaphoid, which is a kidney-shaped bone at the base of the thumb, and the ulna, which is the long bone at the outside of the forearm that attaches at the wrist.

"It was a hairline fracture in the navicular, and a non-displaced fracture of the ulna, maybe three-quarters of an inch above the wrist joint," Bailey explained. "They told me I could have pins put in the fractures or not. It was up to me. But the navicular only has blood supply from one side, which means the bone is a slow healer. Without the pins you can deal with it, and live with it the rest of your life, although there can be a constant, nagging pain. But for a secure heal, I went ahead and had the screws put in both fractures."

So there you have it. After nearly 10 solid years of good fortune, the seemingly indestructible Bailey was brought down by a household accident. Bailey was scheduled for a doctor's evaluation on Friday, after which he hoped to be freed of his arm cast and given the green light to start physical therapy.

"If all goes well, I hope to be riding by mid-October," Bailey said, confirming that the Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup was very much on his mind.

"I want to ride for at least a week before the Breeders' Cup," he added. "And if I couldn't ride the week before, I definitely wouldn't want to ride the Breeders' Cup. I just don't think that would be fair to anyone involved."

In the meantime, Bailey has been trying to make the most of his unscheduled holiday.

"To tell you the truth, I've really enjoyed this time off," Bailey said. "It's been a while since I was really hurt."

Do not think for a minute, though, that Bailey's career has been singularly blessed without serious damage. This is the same Jerry Bailey who fractured his jaw in 1976 when a horse went down in a workout at Hialeah and stepped on his face; who broke his collarbone and five ribs on opening day at Saratoga in 1984 when a horse stumbled leaving the gate; and who fractured three ribs, three vertebrae, and three bones in his left foot when he was trampled in a chain-reaction crash during the 1985 Fall Highweight Handicap at Belmont Park.

Still, one question lingers. Why wouldn't a guy whose mounts have earned more than $100 million over the past five years simply hire a local handyman to install storm shutters?

"People don't know it, but this is the kind of stuff I do around the house all the time," Bailey protested. "Sure, there have been times where I've been on the roof and thought to myself, 'I shouldn't be up here.' But this wasn't one of those times."

In the end, Frances spared the Baileys from anything more than a few downed tree branches.

"And you're not going to believe this," Bailey said, "but an hour after it happened, I'm sitting there with ice on my wrist, and the guy who built my house calls me. 'Hey,' he says, 'I know what a pain in the ass installing those shutters on the front door can be. I've got a guy coming over to do it for you this afternoon.' Talk about salt in the wound."