12/28/2001 12:00AM

Prather back in the saddle


No doubt 2001 could have gone better for Kris Prather. Any layperson who suffered torn knee ligaments and a shoulder out of socket probably would have called it a down year, so just imagine the implications for a professional athlete.

But Prather, who on Monday will return to Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., and try to regain her role as the dominant rider, will always remember 2001 for the good it brought her.

"I don't feel unlucky at all," said Prather, 22. "I still feel really blessed to do what I've done."

Through the first 11 weeks of the year, Prather was easily the winningest jockey in North America, racking up 110 victories, all but one coming at Turfway. But on March 17, she injured her knees in a starting-gate accident, forcing her to the sidelines for the first time.

Shortly after returning in June at Churchill Downs, she was injured again, although she told only a few people close to her. She rode for about a week, then took off again, saying her shoulder was hurting too much, having pulled it out of socket while riding a horse.

After giving herself several weeks, Prather returned in late July at Ellis Park, but again, the shoulder was killing her. On Aug. 16, she finally said enough was enough. She underwent surgery to have the shoulder repaired.

"What I did was hurt myself more than I should have," said Prather. "I ended up tearing my rotator cuff, too. It was just me, trying to come back to riding as soon as I could because I love it so much."

Since the operation her rehabilitation has consisted primarily of daily 45-minute sessions of overhand swimming and biking. "My shoulder really hurt a lot when I first started swimming," she said. "It's okay now. There's still a little soreness, but the doctor told me it's about as good as it's ever going to be. He actually said it's better than it would be for almost anyone. So here I am, ready to ride again."

The return of Prather brings up some of the issues that surfaced last winter at Turfway, when she was garnering national attention for her feats.

Last year, several rival jockeys said they resented Prather, saying she ignored advice from more experienced riders while savoring the attention she generated. Now she returns to the same track at the same time of year.

"We've always enjoyed having Kris here because of what she adds to the jockey colony," said Turfway president Bob Elliston. "She's demonstrated a lot of talent and adds pizazz to the game. She has a way about her that elevates everybody's game."

The Turfway colony soon will be without standouts such as Tony D'Amico (headed to Gulfstream) and Jimmy Lopez (Oaklawn), so Prather, assisted once again by her five-pound apprentice allowance - she has the bug for about another five months - figures to attract prime mounts and win a slew of races again this winter.

"She really affected the odds last year, almost the way Pat Day does at Churchill and Keeneland," said Turfway linemaker Mike Battaglia. "It's like it's impossible for her to ride a 10-1 shot. If she's on something that should be 12-1 or 15-1, I have to make her 6-1 or 8-1 because of the way people bet on her."

If Prather wins a ton of races by the time the Turfway winter-spring meet ends April 4, that will mean her combined statistics during her apprenticeship may have been good enough to win an Eclipse Award. Unfortunately for her, those numbers will have been attained during two separate years.

"Obviously the injuries hurt my chances for the Eclipse," she said.

She is well aware that the bulk of her stats have been compiled at Turfway, which is widely regarded as a cut below other winter outposts such as Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and Fair Grounds. But she also fully believes that she will be extremely competitive at Kentucky's major tracks, Keeneland and Churchill.

"I just didn't get the chance to prove that last year," she said. "Everyone knows that I don't want to be known as just a Turfway rider. It's just a matter of coincidence that I'm back here again."

Having spent plenty of time on the ground last year, Prather is thankful for how she was allowed to grow mentally and emotionally. For about a month this fall, she was in New Orleans with her good friend, former jockey Donna Barton Brothers, who has counseled her on many aspects of life in Thoroughbred racing.

"I've learned a lot more about growing up than I could have if I'd ridden all year," she said. "I'm talking about both as a person and jockey. I got to see the other side of sport, what it's like to be on the bottom and what you have to sacrifice. I think I'm coming back a lot more mature."