04/27/2004 12:00AM

Riding strong but never silent

Shane Sellers, rider of The Cliff's Edge, believes in speaking his mind.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Shane Sellers is back to riding rainbows again. A catchy tune that Sellers sang in a country music career that briefly interrupted his two decades of riding racehorses now serves as a remarkably prescient metaphor for how his career has unfolded.

"Put a bridle on another dream and saddle up the wind," Sellers crooned on "Back to Riding Rainbows," the first track of an 11-song compact disc he recorded several years ago on the Nashville-based Lofton Creek label. "I'm back to riding rainbows again."

Indeed, as the rider of The Cliff's Edge, one of the favorites for the 130th Kentucky Derby, Sellers is only two minutes-plus from finding more than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As deeply complex as his life has become - Sellers not only is an accomplished jockey and singer, but a husband, father of three, and controversial figure within the industry - what transpires Saturday at Churchill Downs could distill his innumerable facets into one glorious label: Kentucky Derby winner.

"To be in that winner's circle, that would be the greatest feeling of my life," said Sellers, 37. "So many things would be running through my mind."

For nearly two years, it seemed that Sellers would never have the kind of opportunity that awaits him Saturday. In December 2000, he suffered a severe knee injury in a freak post-parade incident at Fair Grounds, and for the better part of two years, he was haunted by the very real thought that his career was over.

"I was able to sit on my couch for two years and ask myself, 'Would I have done anything different?' " Sellers said Tuesday in the Churchill Downs jockeys' lounge. "And the answer was absolutely not. I looked back on how I played the game, and it made me proud."

Therein lies a character trait that quite possibly has kept Sellers from being recognized among the elite jockeys of his era. Although on March 28 he became just the 42nd rider in North American racing history to win 4,000 races, and despite a lengthy list of truly impressive accomplishments in racing, including two Breeders' Cup wins, he seldom is included on the short list of the world's greatest active jockeys. That could be for any number of reasons, including where he regularly rides (not New York or California), but Sellers long has believed that a primary cause is his outspoken nature.

Sellers is the first to admit that he has burned bridges and rubbed important people in racing the wrong way. At the same time, he is not about to back down from his strongly held beliefs.

"The way I live my life on the streets is the way I live my life on the racetrack," he said. "I don't let the horses or the horsemen dictate the life I live. I can look everyone in the eye and have no regrets."

An issue that for several years has pitted Sellers against some of his racetrack brethren became the talk of the racing industry this week. "Jockey," an HBO documentary that addresses the issue of weights for jockeys, focuses largely on Sellers and his fellow riders' campaign to have the scale of weights raised at tracks throughout North America. Sellers, who on Tuesday rode at 117 pounds, has been more vocal than anyone in insisting that the current scale is badly outdated and imperils the health of jockeys.

Most trainers oppose him on the issue, including Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bobby Frankel, and even some jockeys, including Pat Day, have said they generally disagree with what changes should be considered.

Lukas frequently rode Sellers on his horses in previous years but no longer uses him, in large part because of the divisiveness the weight issue created. And Day said that while he harbors "no ill will toward Shane whatsoever," he added that Sellers' history of falling out with people in racing "certainly isn't a well-kept secret. He has his opinions, and he's certainly entitled to them."

Undeterred, Sellers keeps digging in his heels. Because of this stubbornness, which detractors interpret as obstinacy or arrogance, not everyone here Saturday will be pulling for Sellers to prevail aboard The Cliff's Edge.

Of course, how people are rooting will have nothing to do with whether The Cliff's Edge will win. Except for the two runnings he missed (2001-02) because of the knee injury, Sellers has ridden in every Derby since 1990, and believes The Cliff's Edge rates closely with his two most notable previous mounts: Skip Away, who ran 12th in 1996, and Pulpit, who was fourth in 1997 despite sustaining a career-ending injury in the race.

"Both were great, great horses," said Sellers. "Skip Away, though, I could tell he probably wasn't going to be at his best because of the way he had worked over this racetrack. Pulpit, I really believe he would have won if he hadn't gotten hurt. I'll remember his race until the day I die."

The Cliff's Edge, said Sellers, has made such steady progress since his 2-year-old season that the colt deserves his status as one of the betting choices. "His race in the Blue Grass was so impressive," he said. "We're where we want him to be. Now we just need the trip."

A Derby victory would "mean everything to my family," said Sellers, who lives in Louisville with his wife, Kelli, and children ages 13, 11, and 7. "They're the ones that have sacrificed so much so that I could live out my dream. They've suffered in a lot of ways, and this would make up for a lot of that."

Sellers also said a Derby win for him would almost be like a Derby win for his close friend and fellow Louisiana native Randy Romero, the retired jockey who is among the 2004 Hall of Fame nominees and also was one of the featured personalities in HBO's "Jockey." Romero, who won nearly 4,300 races but went winless in nine Derby mounts, continues to suffer from liver and kidney disease.

"Randy is the toughest man I've ever known," said Sellers. "It kills me to see him suffering the way he is. He'd love it as much as I would for this colt to win."

Like any other jockey, Sellers knows a Derby victory would forever stand as the pinnacle of his career. Few other jockeys, however, have traveled the same route that once again has him putting a bridle on his dreams and a saddle on the wind.

Shane Sellers in the Derby

2003Lone Star Sky52-115th
2000Graeme Hall46-119th
1998Parade Ground22-16th
1996Skip Away7-112th
1995Lake George11-1(f)18th
1994Meadow Flight16-1(f)11th
1993Wild Gale8-1(f)3rd
1992Conte Di Savoya21-14th
1990Fighting Fantasy111-115th

(f) - mutuel field