03/22/2006 12:00AM

Not all jockeys leave by choice

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the entrance to the Santa Anita jockeys' room has been replaced with a revolving door. However, this exchange heard recently between racetrack wiseguys should hardly come as a surprise:

"You hear Desormeaux is going east again?"

"You mean he's going back to Japan?"

"No, the other East."

The peripatetic Mr. Desormeaux - he of the two Kentucky Derbies and Hall of Fame plaque - has become the poster child for a restless generation of stellar West Coast riders.

Within the last year, Gary Stevens moved to Kentucky, then retired. Mike Smith moved to Kentucky, Florida, and New York, but has yet to catch fire. Both Corey Nakatani and David Flores have sent up trial balloons, testing reaction to an eastward move. So far, they remain in Southern California.

Then there is Desormeaux, who last year made one of his profitable Japanese sojourns, came back, then lately has yo-yoed between decisions to shift his tack to New York, or not. At last report, Kent was named on two horses Friday at Santa Anita.

In a sense, it is understandable that riders of such quality would want to ply their trade where they are appreciated most, and where they can use their skills for maximum financial advantage. For the past several years, fields in California have trended both smaller and cheaper, a result not so much from a weakening of the breed than from a lack of owner investment. Shrinking stakes fields make for fewer seats at the big kids' table. As a result, it should come as no surprise that among the top 10 money-winning jockeys of 2005, only three were based in California.

Still, there are those riders who would give eye teeth for a chance just to ride - any horse, any time. A guy like Joe Steiner, for instance.

Steiner, 41, has been forced to call an end to a journeyman's career that has taken him far and wide. His last race was at Santa Anita on April 3, 2005, when he went down on the backstretch and injured his neck badly enough that "next time" became an ominous issue.

After several months of false hopes and various diagnoses, Steiner finally underwent surgery to stabilize damaged cervical vertebrae. Five months in a neck brace was followed by the stern warning that another serious fall could be his last. He was smart enough to listen.

"Some guys don't realize how lucky they are," Steiner said this week. "But when you're riding, the last thing you think about is the day you have to stop.

"So it was hard, real hard," he went on. "I still can't sleep a lot of nights, but for the first month after realizing it was over, I was so lost. It's like my identity was gone. I felt like the only thing I loved in life was to ride horses, and go fast.

"And believe me, I was dying to be out there at this point in my career. Knowing what I know, having experienced so much, I really think I could have made the standings. Especially since we're not talking about competing in a riding colony with Pincay, McCarron, Delahoussaye, and Stevens."

Right now, when he's not dealing with various insurance settlements, Steiner keeps busy helping the office staff at the Jockeys' Guild headquarters, not far from Santa Anita. The specter of "what next" confronts him daily.

"I can't see myself as a jock's agent, or an official," he said. "But I do like to help people. That's always given me a lot of satisfaction."

The racing industry will be missing the boat if it lets a resource like Steiner go untapped. Personable, upbeat, and an easy communicator, he brings to the table a lifelong love of the sport and a spotless reputation.

"A lot of people search their whole life for what they really need to do," Steiner said. "I was fortunate enough to do that for 24 years, and now I've got to find something that makes me feel the same thrill of being involved. There is something else out there for me. I know it."

Sullivan had many moments in sun

For a brief moment, on the afternoon of Aug. 30, 1981, at Arlington Park, trainer John Sullivan stood at the top of the racing world. Or, as he put it, he at least had a very good view.

All around him people were slapping him on the back and telling him that he had just won the inaugural running of the Arlington Million with The Bart, a tender-footed galloper who rose to new heights over the soggy turf that day. Sullivan, of course, was a wise skeptic and preferred to wait until the photo finish had been viewed. Then came the verdict: John Henry by a nose.

Fortunately, John Sullivan will be remembered for much more than finishing second in a million-dollar race. He trained a host of major stakes winners, including Forzando, Yashgan, and Vernon Castle, and he sent fine young people into the racing world, including former assistant Paddy Gallagher and his daughter Noreen Sullivan.

Sullivan died Monday in Arcadia, at 77, removing from the racing world one of its finest gentlemen, not to mention a discerning critic of the arts. Upon viewing the imposing statuary at Arlington of John Henry and The Bart locked in combat, he once stood back and said, "You know," he winked, "if you look at it just right, we might have won it after all."