01/06/2004 1:00AM

Perret has done it his way

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Four Footed Fotos
Craig Perret is back at Gulfstream this winter. He led all riders there in 1968 - when Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Craig Perret took the day off from work Tuesday. The temptation is to ask: How would he know? But that would be an undeserved jab at someone who has worked a lifetime to reach such an enviable position.

Yes, the daily workload has gotten pretty light in recent years for Perret, whose fabulous riding career is fast approaching 37 years. Last year, Perret accepted just 90 mounts, a testament more to how he has chosen to operate in the twilight of his career than a dwindling popularity with horsemen. He won with 16 of them.

"I'm doing it my way," said Perret, 52.

Indeed, there may be no one in a more unique position in American racing than Perret. Most jockeys cannot afford to pick-and-choose in the manner he has done in recent years, but when the big-money races roll around, some trainers still have Perret on their short lists. Despite the infrequency with which Perret rides, and despite his refusal to adhere to the work-laden protocols that most jockeys follow, some trainers believe he still has the ability to ride with the best.

"Angel Cordero told me, 'I really like the way you do this. If it was me and I tried to do it, they would have canned my ass in a minute,' " said Perret, while catching some sun outside his beachside motel in Hollywood, Fla., on Tuesday.

"This is just something that has worked for me," he added. "I don't know if it could work for anybody else, but it does for me."

This is the first time in about eight years that Perret has chosen to ride regularly at Gulfstream Park, which opened its 2004 meet last weekend. Having sold his Weston, Fla., farm to buy one in Shelbyville, Ky., in 1993, Perret rode sparingly at Fair Grounds in recent winters while mostly staying home in Kentucky to spend time with his two daughters, Jennifer, who is now a mother of three, and Jillian, 16.

Perret's return to Gulfstream is a result primarily of his a desire to seek out a top horse, perhaps one that could give him his 12th Kentucky Derby mount. Perret, who won the 1990 Derby aboard Unbridled, last rode in that race in 2000, finishing third aboard Impeachment.

"You've got to be where the good horses are to get on them," he said. "It was hard to stay home and stay in the game. I wanted to come down here and see what we could do."

Perret, whose agent is Terry "Jaws" Miller, returns to Gulfstream with a combination of attributes that younger riders simply don't have: a wealth of experience, Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, an immunity to big-game pressure, and tremendous riding instincts. He also has a lithe and agile body that belies his age.

Above all, it is that vast amount of experience that is most impressive about Perret.

Perhaps the most amazing fact about Perret is this: In 1968, when Lyndon B. Johnson was president and human beings had yet to set foot on the moon, Perret was the leading rider at Gulfstream. "Would've been the next year, too, but I broke my wrist," he said. "That was okay. I had my title. Didn't need 10."

In the course of a one-hour interview, Perret made reference to dozens of horses and horse people that reveal the depth of his years in racing: John Nerud, Eddie Neloy, Marje Everett, Harry Trotsek, Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Johnny Sellers, Milo Valenzuela, Braulio Baeza, Ray Broussard, Budd Lepman, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Jack Van Berg, John Ward, Bill Donovan, Pretense, One for All, Abe's Hope, Fast Hilarious, Bet Twice, Unbridled, Rhythm, Housebuster, Safely Kept, Lost Code, Peteski, Alydeed, and others.

The saying is overused, but it surely applies here: Craig Perret might very well have forgotten more about racing than some jockeys will ever know.

"Craig brings a ton of experience and horsemanship to the table," said trainer Dale Romans, who plans to use Perret on some of his best horses at Gulfstream. "When he rides your horse, he rides a very smart race. Craig is such a good athlete, and I think he still looks great on a horse. It's so natural to him. Plus, he didn't ride the kind of numbers that so many other jockeys did."

To Perret, a conscious decision he made about 15 years ago to dramatically scale back the number of horses he would ride on a daily basis has been a major key to his longevity. "I'd be up at six in the morning and get done at six at night," he said. "And then I'd come home and the kids would want to do this or that, and I'm like, 'Man, I'm all beat up. I don't really want to.' It was too much. I decided to try and ride the best three or four races on a card."

By staying fresh, "I'm in a better frame of mind to do my work," he said. "It's made riding so much more enjoyable. It keeps it fun, instead of the kind of work that can really get you down. When I get on a good horse now, I get real excited. I want to do the work, to teach him, to look ahead to making him better.

"I'm also lucky I never got banged up. I've had broken collarbones, a broken wrist, but you're talking six weeks off. I never really got crippled up the way some guys have."

Perret said he always keeps in riding shape, regardless of how busy or not he is at the racetrack. "I'm always active," he said. "I'll work around the farm, or I'll get out the sweat suit and start jogging. I'm dead fit. I never let myself go."

"Craig's still healthy and strong," said trainer Pat Byrne, who gave Perret his first mount of the meet on a promising maiden filly named Denim Wildcat, who finished second in the fifth race Sunday. "He's been real smart about the way he's mapped out his career."

For all the positives, Perret has a few regrets about his years in racing. He believes he probably has been unfairly overlooked for election to the Hall of Fame, claiming that younger jockeys who have been getting elected "would have had their turn." In fact, Perret's credentials (4,375 wins, $111 million in earnings, one Derby, one Belmont, four Breeders' Cups) do seem worthy of high consideration.

He felt he was treated with gross injustice (he was fined $10,000 and suspended 15 days) in the infamous Plate Trial fiasco in 1993 at Woodbine. The Ontario Racing Commission, acting on comments Perret made to reporters after he won the Queen's Plate aboard Peteski, ruled that Perret had not sufficiently persevered with Peteski when the horse finished second in the Plate Trial. Perret, who was denied an opportunity to appeal the ruling, still vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

And last, he believes that some of the many changes in racing have been for the worse. "You come into the paddock and everybody's on their cell phone," he said. "The old horsemen, they weren't like that."

Yet he still loves the game, and is nowhere near retirement. "Nothing like a good horse to get you all pumped up," he said.

Like the man himself, that works.

Craig Perret

Age: 52

Resident: Shelbyville, Ky.

Mounts: 26,889,

Wins: 4,375

Earnings: $111,523,381

Highlights

1967: Leading apprentice in money won

1987: Won Belmont Stakes aboard Bet Twice

1990: Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey; won Kentucky Derby on Unbridled; won 57 stakes, tying Jorge Velasquez's record

1998: Earned George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award

Breeders' Cup winners

1984: Eillo (Sprint)

1989: Rhythm (Juvenile)

1990: Safely Kept (Sprint)

1996: Storm Song (Juvenile Fillies)

Riding titles

Monmouth: 1974, 1976

Gulfstream: 1968

Hialeah: 1984, 1985