06/26/2003 11:00PM

St. Julien bouncing back as rising star, again

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CHICAGO - The headlines have gone silent. There's not a Breeders' Cup or Derby mount in sight. But there is Marlon St. Julien's name, third in the Arlington rider standings, and for now, that is enough.

Three years ago, St. Julien's career was soaring. He had talent, he had charisma, and as an African-American jockey in a Latino and Caucasian-dominated sport, he had a hook. St. Julien moved from small Texas tracks like Retama Park to Kentucky. With the Hall of Famer Randy Romero booking his mounts in 2000, he rode Nasty Storm in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and Curule in the Derby.

"I've been almost to the top before," St. Julien said Friday morning, while he drummed the Arlington backstretch for business. "It seemed like I was shooting up, and nothing was going to stop. Then Randy started taking sick, and things started falling down."

As Romero battled a life-threatening illness, St. Julien bounced from circuit to circuit, leaving behind supporters before fully establishing himself. "When my business went down, I might have panicked," he said.

By the beginning of 2003, St. Julien, 31, was going nowhere. At Fair Grounds this winter, a dissolving relationship with his wife rippled into his professional life. He lost business in the morning and struggled to pick up decent horses in the afternoon.

"Over the winter was terrible," St. Julien said. "A lot of it might have been my fault. I had gotten to the mood where I pretty much was depressed."

The situation had bottomed out when St. Julien returned this spring to Chicago, where he had ridden before, but like so many places, left too quickly.

"He was batting at about 4 percent when he came," said Penny Ffitch-Heyes, who became St. Julien's agent here. "We pretty much started from scratch."

Now, they have a foothold. St. Julien's 22 wins through Thursday place him behind only Rene Douglas and Curt Bourque in the jockey standings. He appears to be riding with confidence, getting the most out of an increasing number of live mounts. St. Julien's wife and two children are in Louisiana. He said he's selling his house in Louisville, settling in for the long haul here.

"I want to stick it out," he said. "I'm going to ride things out and get established. Not to sound cocky, but my goal is to be the man here."

The view looks different for St. Julien now that he's gone up and down again. It's easy to be callow and confused the first time through. And for St. Julien, race complicated matters. St. Julien recalled the press hubbub at the Kentucky Derby, where, he said, "I had as many interviews as Jerry Bailey." The questions got repeated ad nauseam - What was it like to be a black jockey?

"At first it was annoying. But at one point I sat down and thought, maybe this is a blessing in disguise," St. Julien said. "I'm going to make the most of it."

Any seasoned rider on a roll has the same tale: first come the live horses, then the good rides. Ffitch-Heyes is herself a racetrack minority, a woman working in the men's club of jockey agents. The milieu can be cutthroat, but Ffitch-Heyes, an Englishwoman, holds her own. She and jockey Randy Meier had a good run in Chicago, but when Meier went down with an injury this spring, Ffitch-Heyes sought out St. Julien.

"She was instrumental in bringing him here," said trainer Christine Janks, whose strong Arlington meet has boosted both St. Julien and Ffitch-Heyes's other rider, the apprentice Timothy Thornton. "I told her if she got him here, I'd ride him. It's worked out for all three of us."

For Janks, St. Julien has ridden Fifteen Rounds, a 3-year-old unbeaten in three starts. Perhaps even better is Coach Jimi Lee, who St. Julien has been riding for trainer Jimmy DiVito.

"He's been patient on horses," DiVito said. "That's a big difference. I rode him some at Hawthorne the last time he was [in Chicago]. He's a better rider now."

Coach Jimi Lee is headed for a stakes race in Florida next month. St. Julien may go with him. This is how it starts - baby steps back toward the top.

"I still have time to accomplish goals," St. Julien said. "It's hard for people to want to stick with you when they don't know where you're going to be."

He's here. He's winning again.