03/18/2005 1:00AM

Sibille side by side with his heroes

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Big-time racing didn't mean too much to a 16-year-old apprentice just cutting his teeth on the rough-and-tumble tracks of southwestern Louisiana, circa 1969. In fact, said Ray Sibille, "The world pretty much ended at Baton Rouge."

Certainly, Sibille and his young race-riding pals knew all about guys like Willie Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, and Braulio Baeza. They were names whispered on the wind, exotic creatures possessed of special powers to attract great horses, widespread fame, and vast sums of cash.

Occasionally, though, the message would hit home and stick hard. It happened to Sibille one Saturday afternoon in 1969, when he settled in with his dad to watch the Major League Baseball Game of the Week.

"In those days, there was only that one game on Saturdays," said Sibille, making it sound like 100 years ago. "And when they had a rain-out, that was it. There was no backup game. So they'd put on almost any kind of sports show. You never knew what you'd get."

On this particular Saturday, they got a documentary about Johnny Longden that included footage of Longden's last ride in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita Park. Sibille recalls watching the race with gut-wrenching intensity, hardly believing his eyes as the 59-year-old Longden somehow coaxed George Royal to a razor-thin victory at the end of 1 3/4 miles. Something in Sibille went click.

"At that point I couldn't even begin to imagine winning a race like the San Juan Capistrano, or even riding at a place like Santa Anita," he said. "But it stayed with me. I was just starting to ride, and I'd be thinking that if I could ever get to a point where I could maybe do such things, then I'd know I'd really done something special."

Still, even in his wildest imaginations, there was no chance the teenage jock would have pictured himself at age 52, standing in the Santa Anita winner's circle and accepting the same honor bestowed upon Shoemaker, Arcaro, Longden, Baeza, and a glowing list of colleagues, dating back to 1950.

That is exactly what will happen Sunday afternoon, though, when Sibille will be presented the 2005 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in front of the family, friends, and fans who deem themselves lucky to call Ray their own.

There always has been an unabashed element of affection in the Woolf Award, and without a doubt Sibille ranks among the most popular riders to ever play at the top of the game. Sibille learned early, as a small kid with a stutter, that it was easier to disarm the opposition with a wisecrack than a left hook.

It also helped to be a smooth operator in the saddle, adaptable to all circumstances and good enough to amass 4,264 winners before the lingering effects of a prerace accident finally required hip replacement surgery last August.

Sibille won a number of meet titles in the Midwest and major stakes from coast to coast, including the Breeders' Cup Turf and a San Juan Capistrano to call his own aboard Great Communicator in 1988.

For the last 20 years, the winner of the Woolf Award, named for the celebrated rider who was killed at Santa Anita in 1946, has been chosen through ballot by members of the Jockeys' Guild, of which Sibille has been an active member throughout his riding career. Upon his retirement last year, he had to step down as the Guild's national treasurer.

Sibille witnessed the struggles of successive Guild managements to deal with the increasing crisis of insurance coverage, and he is heartsick that the organization has experienced so much recent turmoil, including a lawsuit filed by Churchill Downs. At the same time, Sibille has no problem with scrutiny from such traditional guild funding sources as the TRA and the California Horse Racing Board.

"I welcome any audit of management," Sibille said. "If something funny was going on, I want to know about it."

More important, Sibille wants to ensure that the Disabled Riders Endowment remains protected from such controversy and continues to move toward its goal of self-support. Currently, the independently administered endowment helps care for 35 wheelchair-bound riders and another two dozen with permanent damage. Sibille works with the endowment as a special consultant.

"I wasn't ready to quit riding," Sibille said. "I figured I had at least five more good years. But the doctor said one blow to that right hip and there was no telling what kind of damage would be done.

"After the surgery, they strapped me in so I couldn't move around," he recalled. "I remember waking up, tied down like that, and remembering the doctor said that the very next morning I'd be up and walking around. I think it was at that point I knew for certain my career was finished, and that was tough to take, because it wasn't on my terms.

"But I also knew how lucky I was to be walking away on my own two feet, when there were so many who couldn't say that," Sibille added. "Those are the riders I'll still be working for - those permanently disabled riders. I will never, ever turn my back on them."