03/19/2008 12:00AM

Racing life resumes at 51 for Colton


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - When jockey Robert Colton stopped riding in 2002 to begin working more closely with the national Jockeys' Guild, it seemed unlikely that the rider, who was 46 at the time, would be back in the saddle at the age of 51. But on Friday, Colton will be looking for his second win of the Oaklawn meet when he rides Sentebale in the featured ninth race.

Colton guided the filly to victory in a maiden special weight on March 8 - his first mount back from a hiatus of nearly five years. The win was a triumphant moment for Colton, and not just because he lost 32 pounds to get back in the saddle. It represented a full-circle journey for the rider, who while away from the races became locked in a legal battle with the Jockeys' Guild, worked on the film "Seabiscuit," galloped horses in Texas, and founded the Delaware Jockeys' Association.

Colton calls his return to race riding a "briefback" rather than a comeback. He is 17 victories shy of career win No. 4,000, and the reason for his return is to reach that milestone. Colton was encouraged to make his return by trainer Tim Ritchey, for whom he has been galloping horses since 2007.

"He's been a staunch supporter, and I've got to credit the return to riding almost strictly to Tim," said Colton. "He said, 'You're not getting any choice. You're coming down to Oaklawn, and you're going to stay with me. I'm going to lock the fridge and I'm going to lock the cupboards.' "

Colton weighed 132 pounds when he arrived here in December, down from the 145 he weighed when he had been galloping horses in Texas.

"I joined the gym Jan. 1, kind of a New Year's resolution," said Colton, who also cut out sugar and white flour from his diet. "I followed a plan similar to an Atkins diet, a no-carb diet, and it really worked. I walked into the room at 113 and a half, on my first mount."

Sentebale's victory was a nice change of pace for Colton, who in 2003 was asked by Wayne Gertmenian, then the chief executive officer of the Jockey's Guild, to become the organization's chief financial officer. Colton soon found discrepancies in accounting, and called an emergency meeting of the guild's board of directors, of which he had been a part since 2001.

The situation ended in court. Colton was sued by the guild, and in 2004 he filed a countersuit, in part for his position being terminated and for mismanagement of finances by the guild. At that point, Colton left Los Angeles and ended up galloping horses in Texas.

"I stayed off the radar and fought through this lawsuit a couple of years," he said. "I was putting way too much money into it, and I had to walk away from it."

Colton settled with the guild, which had an acrimonious split with Gertmenian in 2005. The organization also filed for bankruptcy last October. As for Colton, in 2006 he returned to the Mid-Atlantic region, where in the late 1980s and early 1990s he won a number of titles riding at Philadelphia Park, Garden State Park, and Penn National.

Colton grew up in Idaho, near the now-defunct Washington State tracks of Yakima Meadows and Longacres. He followed his brother, Randy Colton, into race-riding in 1976. He has since won 3,983 races from 24,935 starts, and his mounts have earned $40,862,999.

Following the Oaklawn meet, Colton plans to ride at Delaware Park. When he hangs up his tack, his work will be with the Delaware Jockeys' Association. The nonprofit organization, which gets a portion of the track's slot-machine revenue, assists active and retired riders and their families with health and welfare needs. It also has helped with occupational coverage for eligible riders. To that end, the association negotiated with Delaware Park to extend its insurance policy, with riders helping to pay for the additional coverage. The Delaware Jockeys' Association model is now in place at Presque Isle Downs and Philadelphia Park.

Colton is looking forward to his third race back Friday aboard Sentebale.

"I know I'm definitely in the very far twilight of my career, and it's not going to be many more years that I'll have the ability to get on a horse and enjoy this," said Colton.