11/29/2007 1:00AM

One slow year can't stop Court

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - For those who forgot Jon Court's 47th birthday on Nov. 23, forget about it. He took care of the party, the cake, and all the presents when he shocked the field in the $400,000 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park aboard Lang Field at odds of 18-1.

With a final, determined lunge at the end of 1 1/8 miles on firm grass, Lang Field rescued Court's disappointing 2007 season by beating the respected Zann by a quarter of a length.

"As birthday presents go, that one was pretty sweet," Court said a couple days after the Citation. "Things have been kind of slow."

Going into the race, Court was languishing far down the 2007 national standings, with 72 winners for the year and $3.4 million in purses earned by his mounts. Most jockeys would sell a relative for such numbers - Court is certainly among the lucky elite - but by his recent standards, the boat had sprung a leak.

By comparison, on the day he turned 46 in 2006, Court had won 105 races and his mounts had amassed $6.6 million. He was on his way to a personal best total of $7.2 million for the year, good enough to nail down the number 20 spot on the final North American standings.

It was no surprise, then, as 2007 dawned, that Court was honored by his fellow jockeys with the George Woolf Memorial Award, given not only to riders of quality, but also to solid citizens who take an interest in the welfare of their colleagues.

Since then, Court has sustained no serious injuries, nor have his skills suddenly eroded. He has missed no significant amount of time due to suspension, illness, or embarrassing behaviors. His weight is under control. He is physically fit and mentally sharp, and he shows up for work like a hungry kid, morning and afternoon.

He is, however, a year older, which is something a jockey wants to stay away from if at all possible. California racing has been especially cruel lately to the aging process among riders, finding the jocks' room awash in feisty sub-30s, all clamoring for a piece of the pie. Court, a smart guy who tries not to kid himself, saw it coming.

"No question it's become tougher out here, just in the last year," he said. "But in one sense, it's encouraging to see these younger riders come along. I don't know where they learn their craft - other than Chris McCarron's in Kentucky, there are no jockey schools in this country like there are in Panama and Japan - but I think it's vital to see them emerge, to keep the standards high and the competition crisp."

Spoken like a true fan, which Court admits he is.

"Sometimes, when I feel like I'm getting a little sour, instead of going right home I'll just go hang around the stands and watch the races," Court said. "I'll watch the horses in the paddock and just take in the whole scene. It never fails to impress me just how magnificent this game is, and how lucky I am to be part of it."

Raised in Florida and riding since 1980, racing runs deep in Court's veins. He's not about to go sour because of a little downturn in business. Anyway, any time he needs a little inspiration, Court only has to glance at the in-laws, being married as he is to the former Krystal Fires, daughter of Midwestern trainer William "Jinks" Fires and niece of Hall of Fame jockey Earlie Fires, who is still riding at 60.

If anything, Court admits to a singular series of events that might have been just distracting enough to put a crimp in his 2007 business. As treasurer of the Jockeys' Guild, it has been Court's unhappy job to attach his signature to the myriad of documents involved with the guild's bankruptcy filing in October, after more than two years of financial struggles.

"It was hard to swallow, but necessary," Court said. "I'm hoping that the guild can rise from this a better organization. Right now, though, what we need is reform, not a revolution. Racing needs a strong guild as a partner in going forward to promote the sport. And there's no question riders need a strong and financially healthy guild. That comes home every time I think of Krystal's uncle, Jackie Fires, who's in a wheelchair because of a riding accident."

Court will be heading to Louisville on Sunday, after riding at Hollywood, for the annual meeting of the guild. Once back home in California, he'll be counting the days until Lang Field, a 4-year-old gelded son of Langfuhr, shows up again in the entries. The Citation was their ninth collaboration, dating back to February of 2007, and their third victory for owner Nigel Shields and trainer Art Sherman.

"I like to think I know him pretty good by now," Court said. "Lucky thing, too. The other day before getting on him, I could feel him kind of turn and get ready to fire out. Sure enough if he didn't try to cow-kick me, but he missed. I'm just glad he saved some of that for the race."