08/28/2001 11:00PM

Some athletes defy aging process


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - At an age when the stars of other professional sports are largely in retirement, jockeys, from one end of America to the other, are turning back the clock.

On the West Coast, Laffit Pincay Jr., at 54, is enjoying a sensational season. He topped the riders' list at Hollywood Park and is battling for similar honors at Del Mar, while colleagues Chris McCarron, 46, and Eddie Delahoussaye, 49, are prominent in the competition.

On the East Coast, Jerry Bailey, 44, is having one of his best years. He leads all riders with $16.5 million in purses won at a relatively early point in the campaign, and appears headed for a record. Pat Day, 47, is also one of the national leaders in purses won.

"There is no feeling quite like it when you ride the winner of a Grade 1," Jean-Luc Samyn, 44, was saying the other day after piloting Shine Again to victory in Saratoga's Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap for fillies and mares. "It makes up for the disappointments that are part of racing, such as injuries and heavy traffic in some races. You don't get the opportunity to win a Grade 1 very often and you learn to appreciate it. My last one was unusually special because it was not one but two. John's Call led all the way to win the Turf Classic at Belmont last fall, and on the same program, Colstar came from off the pace to win the Flower Bowl."

John's Call, whom Samyn rode to win the Grade 1 Sword Dancer here last summer, developed a problem when he returned for a repeat this season. He bled in the race for the first time.

"It was a surprise," Samyn said, "because he is a willing, generous horse. He dropped the bit. Usually he grabs it and pulls you to the lead. He has done well since the heat went away and we've had some cooler weather. In fact, he is entered in a stakes race at Delaware Park this weekend but it isn't certain yet whether or not he will start."

Shine Again, who paid $44.20 to win in the Ballerina, may make her next start in the $300,000 Ruffian at Belmont Park on Sept. 15. The Ruffian, at 1 1/16 miles, is a bit longer than Shine Again has been asked to stay but trainer Allen Jerkens says he was encouraged by the way she relaxed off the pace for Samyn in the Ballerina. The trainer said he wanted to avoid a speed duel with the pace-setting Imadeed and Samyn handled the assignment like the veteran he is.

Over the years, Samyn has ridden 217 winners for Jerkens, 45 of them stakes races. He has had an even longer and more productive relationship with trainer Phil Johnson, for whom he has ridden 400 winners, including 76 stakes. Samyn has been active with computers since 1986 and maintains careful records of all his rides.

It is not coincidence that the two Hall of Fame trainers, Jerkens and Johnson, have availed themselves of Samyn's services over a long period of time. They have come to admire his consistency and his ability to adapt to circumstances that arise from time to time.

Samyn rode briefly for trainer John Cunnington in his native France but a vacation trip to the United States convinced him there were more opportunities in this country. He came here to stay in November 1973, rode in New Jersey for a couple of years, and then moved to New York, where he has built a small but devoted clientele. Since 1974, Samyn has ridden some 2,400 winners, and his mounts have earned about $76 million.

He has ridden some good horses, including Nasty and Bold, the Brooklyn Handicap winner; High Schemes, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks; Skip Trial, winner of the Haskell Invitational; Naskra's Breeze, winner of the Man o' War; Nassipour, winner of the Rothmans International; Virginia Rapids, winner of the Tom Fool, and others of this quality. But he has a special affection for the crack sprinter, Kelly Kip, with whom he collaborated for a number of stakes victories.

"He had so much heart," Samyn recalls. "He was lightning fast but was not the soundest horse in the world. He willed himself to run gamely despite his problems and still holds the track record at Belmont Park with five furlongs in 55 3/5. He gave you everything he had."