01/19/2008 1:00AM

Not too late to get back in the saddle


NEW ORLEANS - At an age when most jockeys are retired or getting close, Martin Brown is coming into his own. At 63, Brown is coming off his best year as a jockey, and he has begun 2008 with two victories in two weeks.

Born in Opelousas, La., in 1944, Brown has spent his whole life working with racehorses, in many different capacities.

He rode match races around the Acadiana region from age 8 to 17, then left high school in 1962 and came to the Fair Grounds.

"I came to the racetrack to be a jockey," said Brown. "I was following the trail of Kelly Broussard and Nelson Menard" - two white jockeys from Acadiana - "but there weren't any black jockeys."

Brown found work at Fair Grounds, eventually working as an exercise rider and rubbing horses for trainer Jere Smith. His time as an exercise rider included working with the horse Ask the Fare, who won the Louisiana Derby in 1967, finished second in the Arkansas Derby, and went on to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

It was during trips with Ask the Fare that Brown made several discoveries that helped his journey toward becoming a jockey.

"That's when I discovered that there were as many black riders as there were," said Brown. "I started doing library work and meeting other black jockeys."

During this trip he met L.J. Durousseau, a standout African-American jockey in Omaha.

"He dominated things around Omaha," Brown said. "He once won 22 races in three days. It's because of him that I wear white gloves," as Durousseau did.

Brown got his first experience as a jockey in Detroit in 1968, riding for Jere Smith. He worked as an exercise rider and occasionally as a jockey through the 1970s. His race was more of an issue at some tracks than others.

When trainer Spanky Broussard named him as the jockey for a filly named Doorstep Waif at Arlington in 1972, Broussard was asked pointedly and repeatedly by the stewards if he really intended to name Brown as the jockey. After being asked three times, Broussard replied, "Judge, I believe Lincoln ended slavery days." Brown rode, and the filly won.

He was injured while exercise riding in 1980, when a horse stepped on his chest and fractured his collarbone. While rehabilitating from the injury he began pony-riding for his brother, trainer Wilbert Brown, and developed a pony-riding business. He named the business B and B, after the grocery run he would make at quitting time for beer and boudin, a kind of Cajun sausage.

With the business going strong, Brown didn't return to jockeying until 2005, a 25-year hiatus. In 2004 he began mentoring a younger exercise rider, Cherelle Smith, showing her how to eat, train, and ride. In the process, he began to eat and train alongside of her. And when she moved to New York, he found himself in good enough shape to begin to work as a jockey again.

"When she and I split up, I said to myself, 'If I lose eight pounds I can be back in this,' " Brown recalled. "I have the physical fitness to compete with these younger riders. They've got their youth, and I've got my wisdom. God gives you both, but not at the same time."

His comeback began with 19 races in 2005, and no victories. Things began to pick up in 2007, with nine wins and mounts earning more than $260,000. And Brown began 2008 strongly, entering Sunday racing with 2 wins and 2 seconds from 24 mounts.

His friendship and partnerships from a lifetime on the track still form the basis of his business, with people he has known since riding match races in Acadiana employing him as an exercise rider and jockey.

"He's the best at breezing horses," said Broussard. "Nobody at the track works harder than Martin Brown."

"A lot of people looked at me and said I was too old," said Brown. "But everything they said I couldn't do, I've done it."