06/02/2002 11:00PM

Rough ride up Madison Ave.


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the days leading up to his date in the 1987 Belmont Stakes with Alysheba, Chris McCarron could almost taste the fifty grand. All he had to do was win the race, then utter those magic words:

"I'm going to Disneyland."

Every sports star was doing it - World Series heroes, Super Bowl MVP's, stars of the NBA championships. The Disney spot was the endorsement icing on a career, the seal of approval from corporate America.

"I even had two practice runs earlier in the day," McCarron said. "There were two cameras set up along the outside rail. I rode up to the first one and went, 'I'm going to Disneyland!' Then, at the second one, 'I'm going to Disney World!'"

As it turned out, he was going nowhere. McCarron and Alysheba finished fourth, far behind victorious Bet Twice. The Triple Crown was lost.

The gallop back to the scales was agonizing. The two Disney cameras remained dark.

There is sufficient pressure on the Triple Crown jockey in terms of bonus money and sheer history. Imagine having a chance to join a list of only 10: Eddie Arcaro, John Longden, Earl Sande, Steve Cauthen, Charlie Kurtsinger, Warren Mehrtens, Ron Turcotte, Jean Cruguet, Willie Saunders, and John Loftus.

In modern times there is also the squeeze to financially maximize every sporting achievement. As a result, the Triple Crown becomes a potential ticket to endorsement possibilities.

"The one that really excited me was with Swiss Army Knife," recalled Kent Desormeaux, who found himself in McCarron's shoes in 1998 with Real Quiet.

"If I won, they were ready to come out with a Kent Desormeaux pocket knife, a racing utility knife, and a watch," Desormeaux said.

But when Real Quiet lost the Belmont by a nose to Victory Gallop and Gary Stevens, the Kent Desormeaux Swiss Army Knife died a silent death on the drawing board.

Top jockeys spend their lives on the outside of the endorsement world, looking in at all the money showered upon athletes who play different games.

The only time a rider catches the fancy of major corporate advertisers seems to be around Triple Crown time, with two legs down and only the Belmont to go.

Even then, they still must win the race to be taken seriously, which is why Victor Espinoza said that he does not want to talk to anybody about any deal that hinges on the results of War Emblem's Triple Crown try on Saturday.

"If they want me before the race, they should want me after, no matter what," he said on Sunday at Hollywood Park.

In the meantime, Espinoza must brace himself for the inevitable gantlet of media demands awaiting him in New York. It must be swallowed, like a bitter vaccine, if a jockey has any plans to make the most of a Triple Crown victory. Potential advertisers read newspapers and watch lots of TV. They prefer to throw their money at a familiar face.

Desormeaux actually hired an agency to capitalize on his window of Triple Crown exposure. They took the bit and ran him all over town.

"I did things like a photo op with Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden," Desormeaux said. "Great to do, but stupid to do it on the morning of Belmont day.

"I would advise anyone in that situation, that after Friday at like 4 p.m., that's it," Desormeaux said. "You shut down and cut media off. Losing by so little, like I did, you're going to beat yourself up anyway. If I think back at the whole situation, though, if I'd been just a little bit more focused, maybe the whole thing would have been different."

"You want to do what you can, and not just for yourself, but for the game," said Gary Stevens, who rode into New York in 1997 looking for the Crown on Silver Charm. They lost to McCarron and Touch Gold.

"But after awhile, you realize you've just become a piece of meat," Stevens added. "They always find you, and they hammer you if you ever say no."

So far, Espinoza has agreed to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium Thursday night and ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange Friday morning. The bell he can handle. But baseball? As a kid, that really wasn't his game.

"I just hope I don't hit anybody," Espinoza said.

While on Long Island, Espinoza plans to lay low, take a break from his exercise regimen, and visit his older brother, Jose Espinoza, a jockey at Belmont Park. As for contact with War Emblem, don't bother looking for Espinoza around Bob Baffert's Belmont barn.

"I've got nothing to do there," Espinoza said. "That's Bob's job. I just want to worry about my job."

Good idea, because there are some highly motivated riders who will jump all over Espinoza's slightest mistake. Stevens rides Peter Pan winner Sunday Break. Desormeaux is poised with Medaglia d'Oro.

"McCarron lost the Triple Crown, then broke up Gary's," Desormeaux said. "It was Gary who beat me. Do you see a pattern here? History does repeat itself. I want to be the one to tell Victor, 'I know how you feel.' "