05/19/2003 12:00AM

Racing pioneer has seen it all

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Kathy Kusner was playfully alarmed to hear that Barclay Tagg, a good friend from their steeplechase riding days back in the 1960's, was being identified as the "65-year-old" trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. So she gave him a call, just to make sure she heard right.

"Sixty-five!" exclaimed Kusner, who is 63. "We were screaming with laughter, wondering what happened to us."

What happened is that Tagg, now on the threshold of a Triple Crown, has joined Kusner in writing a page of racing history. And while Tagg's story is still incomplete, Kusner's impact has been chiselled in stone for 35 years as the first woman to receive a license to compete as a professional flat-racing jockey in the United States.

"I didn't set out to be the first girl jockey," Kusner protested, still the reluctant hero. "I just wanted to ride races."

Golfer Annika Sorenstam, who is playing against men this week in the Colonial, required only an invitation from the tournament sponsors. Big deal. Back in 1968, in order to ride, Kusner had to go to court to overturn the ruling of the Maryland racing commissioners, who deemed her lacking the necessary strength to do the job.

She was strong enough, however, to be a member of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian teams that competed in Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968, and strong enough to win a gold medal as part of the U.S. team competing in the 1964 Pan American Games in Sao Paolo.

"Being a jockey should not be a girl-guy thing, it's whether or not you're good at it," Kusner said this week from her West Hollywood home. "It's the same with riding show jumpers. There is no advantage to be a guy, or to be stronger. But it is always an advantage to be better."

Had Kusner never done another thing other than succeed in that court case, her pioneering place in the history of American sports would have been secure. But Kusner could never hold still. The Maryland case represents only a tiny slice of her fascinating life, full of challenge and accomplishment.

After ending her career on the flat, Kusner continued as an influential presence in the show jumping world. She became an accomplished pilot and scuba diver. She began running "ultra-marathons" and 10,000-meter races. She founded "Horses in the Hood," a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that helps put young people from the inner city next to horses, giving them a chance to ride them, groom them, and appreciate the care and skill that goes into horsemanship.

Kusner also developed a consultancy, with clients in the movie business, and made a name for herself in as an expert witness in equine related litigation. It's hard to argue with the credentials of someone with an Olympic silver medal at home in the bottom of a trunk.

"The medal itself doesn't mean anything," Kusner said. "What was important to me was the experience of doing it. The most fun was staying in the Olympic Village, and meeting all these other people doing such interesting stuff.

"I remember taking two boxers out to the stables one day - the light heavyweight and the middleweight - two giant black guys from Philadelphia with muscles sticking out all over the place. And they were afraid of the horses! I would have to take their huge hand in mine just to get them to stroke the horse's muzzle."

Kusner earned her medal as part of the U.S. equestrian team competing at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. She also had a close-up view of the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes.

"I was standing outside the Israeli compound, watching as it happen, and listening to the news on my little transistor radio," she said. "I will never forget how, from time to time, Howard Cosell would come over to me, listen to the news from New York on my radio, then walk back in front of his television cameras and give an update. He never even said hi, or thanks."

Kusner has been blissfully unaware of the Sorenstam story unfolding in professional golf. She has better things to do, like competing in a 31-mile race with her boyfriend through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lone Pine - which she was doing while the Preakness was being run - or preparing for the next horse camp for the kids from "Horses in the Hood."

Now she must set aside the time to watch the Belmont Stakes, on June 7, just in case her old pal Tagg does it again.

"There was a pipe fence somewhere on the Belmont Park backside," Kusner recalled, "and Barclay taught me how to put my hands on the fence and vault over it. I was a very poor student, so it required an excellent trainer."

Now that same trainer is going for the Triple Crown. Kusner wouldn't put it past him.

"It's not like someone you know who was a flake, or not a good horseman. Not at all," she said. "He's completely legitimate. But, of course, he's not the only one. Most of the people who are qualified will not win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The fact that he is doing this is just so much fun."