02/25/2009 12:00AM

Riding horses a hard habit to kick


ARCADIA, Calif. - Fully aware that this is being written on Ash Wednesday, I thought I would try giving up "Jockeys" for Lent. I can't.

They've got me hooked, but not on the fiery romance of Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland (think Tracy and Hepburn with flak vests), or the natural-born animosities of Aaron Gryder and Joe Talamo (Hatfields vs. McCoys comes to mind), or the May-December career travails of California rookie Kayla Stra and veteran Jon Court. By now, all that is old news.

What I'm waiting desperately to see is the formal introduction of Alex Solis. He is the lone cast member whose story has yet to be told, and it must be a doozy. Either that, or there was a mixup in the lab and they lost the tape. On Wednesday, just for a sweetener, it was announced that Solis is once again on the ballot for the racing Hall of Fame. If "Jockeys" does a sequel, they may be heading for Saratoga Springs.

For some reason, "Jockeys" always makes me think of jockeys, and not just the men and women suiting up every day to ride at about two dozen tracks across the North American continent. The profession leaves a lot of bodies by the side of the road, left to fend for themselves after careers come to an end. Many times, the ending was not pretty.

Joe Steiner is 44. The last time he rode was in April 2005 when he went down hard on the Santa Anita backstretch and broke his neck. Eventually, surgery was performed to stabilize the damaged cervical vertebrae with a plate, six screws, and spacers. His career of 24 years was over, a career that began as an apprentice with Hall of Famer John Longden and took him from his native Northwest to Kentucky, Florida, California, and even Saudi Arabia.

Steiner, though, refused to go quietly. Fit and strong, with a keen desire to work with Thoroughbreds at the highest levels, he returned to the track last fall and was exercising horses for trainers such as Richard Mandella and Bob Baffert. Steiner had a setback when he dislocated an elbow in a freakish fall from a young Mandella horse, but he has come back this winter and can be seen aboard several of the best in the Baffert stable each morning at Santa Anita.

"I just love getting on these horses, and I think I can contribute something to them," Steiner said.

It's a fair question, though. Even with a rigorous workout routine and good, clean living, is Steiner putting himself at inordinate risk?

"All of us who've been hurt are in the same boat," Steiner said. "Look at Alex Solis. He's riding with a rod between his shoulder blades. A doctor might say it's not a good idea to ride anything at all. But I don't think I'm any more or less susceptible to injury than I ever was."

It should be noted that when Steiner fell and dislocated his elbow, his neck felt just fine.

Jim Burns didn't have the same choices. He was 45 in March 2003 when the young horse he was about to breeze in company at Bay Meadows spooked and ducked out from under him. In the tangle, Burns was plowed beneath his loose horse and ended up with a broken and dislocated left shoulder and what turned out to be - after a dangerously delayed diagnosis - two badly damaged cervical vertebrae. After a 27-year career with more than a thousand Thoroughbred wins and nearly as many aboard a variety of other breeds - including 48 wins aboard the champion mule Black Ruby - Burns was finished as a jockey.

But not as a racetracker. Today, Burns can be found in the stable office at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, 35 miles east of San Francisco, lording over a busy backstretch as stable superintendent. Burns also doubles as track superintendent, which means he gets twice the ration of complaints heaped upon the typical racetrack department manager. In a pinch, he also drives the tractor.

"How about that - I just turned 50, and I'm still learning new things," Burns said Wednesday from his Pleasanton office.

Before last fall, the Pleasanton facility was nothing more than a sleepy little training center. Stall rent was charged to help justify the cost of year-round availability, but precious few trainers chose to race from there.

Then came the demolition of Bay Meadows. Overnight, Pleasanton became an important component in the survival of Northern California racing, giving horsemen an alternative to Golden Gate Fields. According to Burns, the Pleasanton horse population boomed from around 250 to more than 500, while stabling costs are now covered by state funds.

"There are plans for dorms, more barns, a turf course," Burns said. "But it all depends on how much more racing Pleasanton would get and how much it would all cost."

Burns still has a plate and screws stabilizing his neck, and nerve damage that provides the thumb and first two fingers of his left hand with a constant, nagging tingle.

"I can turn my head a little more to the left than the right," Burns said. "My arm, I can't raise much higher than the shoulder. Things like climbing a ladder or swimming are pretty hard to do, but at least I've learned to live with the pain."

Most of the time, that's easier than learning to live without riding.