07/02/2003 11:00PM

She just couldn't stay away


Changing careers in mid-life isn't unusual. Leaving a secure job in the medical profession to try and ride Thoroughbred race horses after an absence of almost 10 years, however, surely is both rare and risky.

Marge Keefer-Muniz, who had only modest success during a 10-year stint as a jockey that began in the mid-1980's, got the itch to resume riding this spring. At age 43, Keefer-Muniz left her job as an operating-room nurse to revive the riding career she had abandoned in 1994.

Based on early returns, Keefer-Muniz is riding better than ever.

From three mounts, Keefer-Muniz has won twice, scoring with Black Joe in a maiden claiming race at Delaware Park last Saturday and with Roses for Marti ($36.20) in a turf race Monday at Philadelphia Park.

Prior to her comeback, Keefer-Muniz had not ridden a winner since September 1991 at Ellis Park.

Keefer-Muniz explained she returned to racing because she hadn't gotten the sport out of her blood.

"I realized horses were my first love," Keefer-Muniz said. "I was still light and I was still fit. Until I completed that mission, so to speak, I was not ready to go back to the operating room until I was really ready to dedicate myself to it as I have with the horses."

During her first career as a jockey, Keefer-Muniz rode at Delaware Park from 1984 through 1989. She then rode at Birmingham Racecourse in Alabama, Ellis Park, Louisiana Downs, and Oaklawn Park. Her most successful season came in 1992 when she won 24 of 241 races and her mounts earned $158,937. Overall, she won just 67 races in 10 years.

In 1994, Keefer-Muniz retired from race riding to pursue an education in nursing at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Ky. In early 2000, she completed programs in nursing and the operating room.

Even while she was in school, Keefer-Muniz managed to stay involved with racing, galloping horses for trainers Frank Brothers and Neil Howard at Churchill Downs.

"That basically helped pay my way through nursing school," she said. "It also gave me an opportunity to keep in touch with horse racing because I could never totally make that complete breakaway."

Upon graduation, she got a job working on the heart team at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. In September 2002, she moved back to Delaware and started working for the heart team at Christiana Care in Wilmington. She decided to leave her nursing job in March and three months later accepted her first mount, finishing fourth aboard a maiden at Penn National.

Keefer-Muniz said there are some similarities between working as a nurse in the heart unit and riding horses.

"Working on a heart team is really a lot like the horse racing business," she said. "It is kind of its own separate world and you have to be truly dedicated be there. If you are not, it is just hard to do. There will be a day when I do return to the heart team."

* Multiple stakes winner Elegant Designer, freshened after a pair of dull races, tries to regain her good form in Saturday's $55,000 Polly's Jet Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs.

Elegant Designer won the Busher Stakes at Aqueduct in March. But she ran poorly in both the Grade 2 Beaumont at Keeneland and the Legal Light at Delaware during April. She has been working swiftly at Laurel for her comeback.