03/01/2002 12:00AM

Pioneer did job the 'right way'

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Sylvia Bishop's contemporaries included Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, and like them, Bishop can say she was a pioneer among African-Americans.

Unlike Robinson, who is still considered a role model for the graceful way he handled breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and Parks, whose courage in standing up for her civil rights was recently dramatized in a television movie on CBS, Bishop never gained much fame for being the first African-American female licensed to train Thoroughbreds in the United States.

Instead, Bishop efficiently did her job, spending more than 60 years on the backstretch at the Charles Town Races and other mostly small tracks in West Virginia and Maryland until severe arthritis in her legs forced her into retirement at age 79 two years ago.

Bishop, who returned to the winner's circle at Charles Town on Thursday night to receive a plaque recognizing her lifelong dedication to racing, downplays her role as a groundbreaker in a sport dominated by men.

"I was tough, but you had to be if you wanted to succeed," said Bishop, who still lives in Charles Town,

W. Va., where she grew up in a family with 17 children. "Ask anyone who worked for me, and they will tell you I insisted there was only one way to do things and that was the right way."

During her early years in racing, segregation was still a way of life. In the track kitchen, for example, Bishop had to sit on one side, along with the other African-Americans who worked at the track as grooms or hotwalkers, with white employees on the other side of the room. Otherwise, she maintains that her color never was an issue.

"I was treated better inside the racetrack than outside it," said Bishop, known as Mums by most racetrackers. "Everyone on the backstretch was always very respectful to me."

Bishop began working at the track in 1934, the first full year that Charles Town was open. She recalls riding her bicycle to the track and working in the barns feeding horses and washing feed tubs. "Then I rode my bike back and got home before my foster parents got there, so they didn't know what I was doing."

After completing the 11th grade, Bishop quit school and began working at the track for good. She got her trainer's license in 1954.

Working mostly with cheap horses and without the aid of modern veterinary medicine, Bishop had to be resourceful to keep her horses running. She remembers the concoction she used for horses suffering from bucked shins. "I would take corn cob, red mercury, and Noxzema," she said. "I would rub that stuff on their legs, put bandages on, and walk them."

Bishop, who at the height of her career had about 25 horses in her barn, recalls taking her horses around the Maryland fair circuit for 10-day meets in places like Hagerstown, Bel Air, and Cumberland, where she once was the leading trainer.

Mostly, it was difficult scraping together a living at tracks where claiming prices dipped as low as $1,250 and purses could be as little as $800.

The first horse Bishop owned - and one of her all-time favorites - was Chalkee. In his best season, as a 3-year-old in 1956, Chalkee won 4 of 19 starts and finished in the money five other times. He earned a paltry $3,480.

In her best year, 1961, Bishop's horses won 25 races and $40,995. Her top horse that season, Bright Gem, won 6 of 13 starts and $11,700, including the lone stakes win of Bishop's career in the Iron Horse Mile at Shenandoah Downs, located right across the road from Charles Town.

"I had to count every penny," Bishop said. "But back then, everybody took care of everybody else. If somebody needed 50 cents and you could help out by giving them a quarter, you did."

To supplement her income, Bishop ran a tavern and rented out rooms in her house to clockers. She said one of the musical acts to perform at the pub was a very young - and as yet unknown - Ike and Tina Turner.

Statistics from the era when Bishop did most of her work are sketchy. But gauging from the numbers that are available, Bishop was remarkably consistent.

In 1963, for example, she saddled 19 winners out of 159 starters with 22 seconds and 19 thirds. That works out to 12 percent winners and a healthy 38 percent in the money.

In 1999, the last full year that she trained, Bishop's horses went 8-4-6 in 45 starts - an 18 percent win rate and 40 percent in the money. She last started a horse in April 2000, reluctantly stepping aside because it was just too difficult for her to get around on her arthritic legs.

Asked if she had it to do all over again if she would change anything, Bishop is adamant. "No I wouldn't," she said. "I always loved horses and I always had good help. We were like one big happy family."