02/07/2003 12:00AM

Papa John sure could horseback


ARCADIA, Calif. - In a comfortable corner of the Sun Lakes retirement community, some 90 miles east of Los Angeles in the windswept town of Banning, the legendary life of John Eric Longden is quietly drawing to a close.

There is no procession of visitors, no hovering media, no wailing in the night from anguished family. At the age of 95, Longden is in the process of slowly letting go, as peacefully as the human body will allow, with his wife, Kathy, by his side and hospice care to help guide the way.

"He won't eat," Kathy Longden said. "They said that I shouldn't force him. But it's hard not to try."

It was especially hard to believe that this tiny, bedridden man was the same powerful athlete who guided Count Fleet to a Triple Crown 60 years ago this spring. Or that he was the same John Longden who rode against Phar Lap at Agua Caliente in 1933, who rode first call for Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Wheatley Stable in the the late 1930's, who beat Citation four straight times with Noor in 1950, and who went out with a blaze of glory in his final ride, at the age of 59, with his record 6,032nd victory in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita Park.

"Is it cold today?" Longden whispered to a visitor who had come with friends to the Longdens' home, hard by the second fairway of the Sun Lakes Country Club golf course.

The high desert wind was up and it was cold, John was told. Not as cold, of course, as the north central English town of Wakefield, where Longden was born on Feb. 14, 1907. And certainly not as cold as the mines of Tabor, in the Canadian province of Alberta, where as a boy he dug for coal at the bottom of a three-mile shaft.

But even in his sun-drenched room, with the covers pulled snug to his neck and his little dog, Gidget, nestled by his side, Longden did not have much strength left to fight off any chill. The muscles were gone from his tree-trunk calves, and his thick chest was half its riding size, from the days when the man they called the Pumper could put any horse on the lead and keep him there.

"You sure schooled me a time or two, didn't you, Papa John," said Larry Gilligan, a former rider who is now a racing official. "I remember trying to get through inside once, and I ended up picking out the splinters. John says, 'You won't do that again, will you, son?' "

Longden responded to Gilligan's tale with a weak smile of acknowledgement. Words are coming hard right now, and conversation is impossible. Although, according to Kathy, it was not long ago that Longden would lapse into talkative flashbacks, almost hallucinatory rambling, rich with racetrack memories.

"He said he was going back to riding," said Chase McCoy, Longden's friend of more than 40 years. "He wanted me to take his book."

McCoy and his wife, Doris, live nearby and visit the Longdens daily. They are part of the fabric that makes John Longden's story so vivid.

"John got days and couldn't ride Black Sheep in a race out here," McCoy said, referring to his top 3-year-old of 1962 who was trained by Charlie Whittingham. "We got Shoemaker to ride him, and he got nothing. Then, when we went back to Chicago for the American Derby, Charlie put John on Black Sheep again. All they did was beat Ridan."

Longden was 55 at the time. Whittingham's reaction was to the point.

"McCoy, the old man can still horseback," the trainer said.

In 1969, three years after he retired from riding, Longden won the Kentucky Derby as a trainer with Majestic Prince. They nearly captured the Triple Crown.

A painting of Majestic Prince graces the Longdens' living room, along with portraits of Count Fleet, Royal Serenade, and Money Lender, each one representing a sweet chapter in a story that spanned most of the 20th century. There is Longden's special Eclipse Award, presented in 1994, his George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award from 1952, and, resting against a wall, Longden's Hall of Fame plaque from 1958, when he was inducted alongside Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro.

If anyone needs a reminder of what Longden has meant to the game, merely dig out a copy of B.K. Beckwith's 1973 biography, "The Longden Legend," and turn to the passage describing the unforgettable San Juan Capistrano, in which Longden rode George Royal to victory by a nose in front of more than 60,000 fans. The date was March 12, 1966.

"A great stillness came over the people as the photo sign went up on the tote board," Beckwith wrote. "In the aftermath of the titanic struggle the crowd was limp. They were exhausted emotionally, many wiping tears from their eyes. When number 10 flashed on the board, a roar ascended from the mass of humanity which split the heavens."

Whether or not Longden will reach his 96th birthday next Friday remains to be seen. No one who knows him would bet against it.

Still, it was hard to say goodbye, in that sunlit room. As his visitors hemmed and hawed, it was Longden who made it simple.

"I'm tired," he said.

And that was just fine. It was time for Papa John to rest.