04/28/2004 11:00PM

Set for the ride of their lives

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It begins not with a whimper, but with a banging crash of metal, slapping leathers, and screams from the throats of thousands who've been waiting - and drinking - since dawn.

After months of anticipation, the 130th Kentucky Derby will commence at 6:04 Saturday evening. More than a hundred thousand in the house will patch the race together from glimpses between temporary tents and infield clutter, and millions will be watching the unfiltered drama emerge on screen.

And yet, at the end of the 122 seconds or so, there will be only 20 true witnesses to the event, 20 brave men who will throw themselves headlong into a loosely organized stampede of unruly, hot-wired Thoroughbreds. When it's over, they will each have a bloody tale to tell, and only one will have a happy ending.

Imagine, then, you are a 21-year-old prodigy, you are riding in your second Kentucky Derby, and you are doing everything in your power to forget about the first.

Imagine the thoughts of a 39-year-old veteran, a winner of more than 3,000 races, sitting on the best chance of a lifetime to finally take America's most famous race.

And imagine, if you can, that you are the most celebrated jockey in the game, 46 years old, with two Derbies already to your name and the end of a brilliant career in sight.

Jerry Bailey has been talking retirement for the last year and a half, and that's okay. There's not much left for him to do. Seven Eclipse Awards, 14 Breeders' Cups, and a place in the Hall of Fame provide a lasting statement. He says he might ride another year after this one, but that's just a guess and he knows it.

"In reality," Bailey said, "I go out there thinking every day might be my last day."

Bailey has ridden the Derby 16 times, winning with Sea Hero in 1993 and Grindstone in 1996. This time he rides Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon, a long-bodied gray with untapped talent. All of Bailey's tactical prowess will be required to guide the leggy stretch-runner through the crowd.

"There are three key points in the Derby," Bailey said. "The start, of course, where you can lose two or three lengths in the blink of an eye. Then the first turn, where nobody gives an inch. And then the three and a half. That's the critical point."

In the end, Bailey said, any pre-race strategy can be meaningless. A 20-horse Derby must be ridden by instinct.

"Have you ever played 52-pickup?" he asked. "You never know how the sticks will fall."

Tyler Baze, who is diving into his second Derby, will be aboard St Averil, once among the West's leading colts, now shunted to the background after a dull Santa Anita Derby. Baze, convinced of St Averil's quality from the start, was baffled by the setback.

"I guess he just wasn't training well for that race," Baze said. "He was just kind of sour."

Since then, trainer Rafael Becerra has dealt with St Averil's feet, and Baze has noticed the difference.

"He's working like he did before," said Baze, who is always aboard for morning moves. "He's got a style that can put him anywhere in the race, and enough speed to move when I need it. I'm just hoping for a good start."

That's understandable. In his 2003 Derby debut, aboard the speedy Indian Express for Bob Baffert, Baze was last into the starting gate and last to leave, compromising any chance he might have had. Baze is not crazy enough to criticize the Churchill Downs gate crew for his plight - their task is thankless enough in large Derby fields - and he does not dwell on the harsh words that rained down from Baffert in the aftermath. As far as Tyler is concerned, his Derby history starts Saturday.

Good for him, says Richie Migliore. It was 19 years ago, in the 1985 running, when Migliore saw his Derby debut go up in smoke after Eternal Prince broke poorly and could not pressure Spend a Buck. Migliore, 20 at the time and the hottest young jock in New York, was ripped in the post-race press.

"It was a tough pill to swallow," said Migliore, who in his fifth Derby appearance will be aboard Florida Derby winner Friends Lake. "But in my heart of hearts, I truly believe if we did break cleanly and went after Spend a Buck, my colt would have passed out from chasing him, and I would have incurred no criticism. Remember, Spend a Buck set the fastest pace of any Derby winner in history."

Migliore describes Friends Lake as "a very good-looking, big, strong colt who acts like he knows it."

"He has an imposing presence and a toughness that will suit him well, especially if he gets some body contact in that first turn, and I know he will get the mile and a quarter. But he is a bit of a grinder.

"When the real race starts to take shape in that second turn, I won't have the luxury to move and idle with him like other colts. I've got to try my best not to get him stopped.

"Then," Migliore added, "when I tip out and ask him to run, if the racing gods are smiling, and the moon and the stars are aligned, it just might be our day."