06/15/2003 11:00PM

Steiner getting ready for his close-up


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's hard to decide which rider had the best weekend. Candidates run deep.

Richie Migliore turned in a beauty, lulling the Brooklyn Handicap field to sleep and splashing home with Iron Deputy. Gary Stevens swept both the Hollywood Oaks and the Whittingham Memorial, and came within a half-length of taking the Californian as well. And not even a three-day suspension could spoil the roll of Patrick Valenzuela, who won nine races in two days, including Sunday's Quicken Tree Stakes at Hollywood Park.

In terms of self-satisfaction, however, and pride of accomplishment, nothing beats the last few days in the life of Joe Steiner.

When Steiner was last on public display, he was being hauled off the track at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 26 in the back of an ambulance. His right heel was smashed. The bone protecting his right eye was fractured. His nose was broken, and a number of teeth were gone, or on their way.

Two surgeries, three months, and a lot of healing later, Steiner was feeling good enough to go home to Seattle for a family visit and junior high school reunion. In spite of his injuries, it was still the handsome, 38-year-old Steiner to whom the years had been kind, unlike some of his classmates. If it just hadn't been for Feb. 26.

Never mind. Ancient history now. Steiner returned to the track last week, sporting his latest battle scars and determined to resume his career. On the first day he threw a leg over trainer Dean Greenman's pony, but that got tired in a hurry. Nothing against the pony, mind you. But when Thoroughbreds are in your blood, nothing less will do.

"If you are a young jockey, when you get back on horses after an injury, you feel like you're ten feet tall," Steiner said after work on Monday.

"But if you've been riding for a while, getting back on a horse is like going back where you belong," he added. "It feels like solid ground. And you can't wait to get back up to speed. So after riding the pony one day, I jogged a couple, then breezed a couple, then the next thing I knew I was breezing four a day.

"The first horse I breezed was for Nick Canani," Steiner went on. "He asked me if I still had my clock. After 22 years of riding, if you've got that clock in your head, you're not going to lose it in three months. The breeze went totally perfect."

Steiner anticipates that he wi ll be riding-fit very soon.

"I've been injured before, so I knew what I had to do to get myself fit again," he said. "I'll work four in the morning, then go to the gym and work out in the afternoon. By the next morning I feel like a million dollars."

He also gives his wife, Jane, a lot of credit for his relatively quick recovery.

"If you have stability in your personal life, it helps immensely in your career," Steiner said. "Especially when you have to deal with an injury like this. It wasn't fun for Jane to go through. I just had to keep telling her that I looked a lot worse than I felt.

"I'm going to take it slow, wait another three or four weeks and try to get some decent mounts lined up before I really go at it again. I've already had a few guys want to put me on horses already. But there's no real reason to rush. Once you get back going again, you've got to be ready to go 100 percent all the time.

"As far as getting fit, I had to strengthen that ankle, because the muscles had gotten so weak while the foot healed," Steiner added. "Other than my face, all that really happened was that my heel was broken."

You heard right. Steiner just said, "Other than my face." The rest of us civilians might not come out of the house until plastic surgery had worked its magic. But jockeys are definitely different. Their vanity works in mysterious ways. If it isn't part of the riding mechanics, why worry? It isn't a beauty contest.

So, for at least the time being, Steiner is no longer drop-dead handsome, with a profile good enough to double for Gary Stevens atop the movie versions of Seabiscuit during key scenes in the shooting of the upcoming movie. For now, he is merely a very good-looking guy wearing the badge of his serious profession.

Steiner spent part of his Seattle holiday supplying free publicity for "Seabiscuit." A front-page article in the King County Journal recalled the tale of Steiner's mother, Sally Steiner, sitting on Shirley Temple's knee during the filming of the original "Seabiscuit" in 1949. Jockey Joe Leonard, Steiner's grandfather and namesake, was a stunt rider in that first version of the Seabiscuit legend.

In the meantime, Steiner has been highly entertained by some reactions to his reappearance on the backstretch scene. Apparently, his injuries grew in legend.

"There were people who were shocked to see me," Steiner. "They'd heard my eye was hanging out of the socket." Makeup!

"The eye is still coming back," Steiner said. "The vision is perfect. But there's nothing they can really do about the cosmetic look until about a year from now, because of all the scar tissue. As time goes on, it should improve. In the meantime, I can always wear sunglasses."