07/13/2006 11:00PM

Sure feels like he never left


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is, in sporting legend, the apocryphal tale of how Philadelphia fans at a 1968 Eagles game rained boos down upon a guy dressed like Santa Claus.

Sandy Hawley is no Santa Claus. But in his native Canada, he comes pretty close, which is why it was so amazing that Hawley once was greeted by a bitter flock of boo-birds at his beloved Woodbine.

"It was back when I decided to stay in California year-round," Hawley said recently. "When I came back to Woodbine to ride a big race, a lot of the fans would boo me. To me, it sounded like the whole grandstand. It was really weird. I guess they felt like I'd deserted Canada."

Not hardly. Born in the town of Oshawa, located on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, Hawley has always bled maple leaf red, even when he was running up records in Maryland and winning big races in California. Now 57 and retired for eight years, Hawley remains one of a handful of iconic Canadian racing personalities who - along with Northern Dancer, E.P. Taylor, and fellow jockey Avelino Gomez - served to remind American racing fans that the game is every bit as tough when played north of the border.

These days, Hawley is identified as the most notable public spokesman for Woodbine, Canada's world-class race course, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. It is a natural fit, too, since Hawley owes a large part of his racing success to the suburban Toronto track, while Woodbine does nothing but benefit from Hawley's imprimatur.

After all, the guy is a four-time winner of the Queen's Plate, Canada's premier race, and is enshrined in no less than 10 various Halls of Fame. The list is led by Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, where his name can be found alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Ferguson Jenkins, Gordie Howe, Herve Filion, Gilles Villeneuve, and Bobby Orr.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs welcomed Sandy Hawley into its company in 1992, on the strength of a career that included more than 6,000 winners, four North American championships (in total winners), and the 1976 Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding jockey.

And then there are the various community halls of fame in sports- crazy Canada, claiming at least a piece of the Hawley legend as he raced and lived in such towns as Oshawa, Mississauga, Fort Erie, and Etobicoke.

"I can't forget the Whitby Hall of Fame," Hawley said. "It's right next to Oshawa. I moved there when I was about 8 years old."

Hawley credits much of his success to trainer Donald "Duke" Campbell, the man who was first to put young Sandy on a racehorse. Hawley had a feeling his fate was sealed for good one morning at the Woodbine training track, when Campbell tossed him aboard a hard-mouthed Thoroughbred and told him to gallop a mile.

"It was one of the first horses I ever galloped at Woodbine," Hawley said. "Duke said, 'Once around, and bring him back.' Well, I went around once. Then I went around twice. And now I was going around a third time, pulling and pulling, trying to get him stopped, and I'm dead tired.

"Duke was having a great time, all smiles with his arms crossed, watching me go around and around," Hawley said. "On the third lap he hollered at me, 'Hey, jock. I thought you used to be on the wrestling team!' And I swear I had just enough breath to answer him, 'I was! I was!' before the outrider finally caught us."

And a valuable lesson was learned.

"I figured out pretty quick that it was easier to try to get along with a horse than fight him," Hawley said. "If nothing else, that's what I try to tell younger riders."

It took a bad fall and cold reality to convince Hawley his riding career was finished, in the spring of 1998. On Aug. 2, 1996, while leading the standings at Woodbine, he was thrown and then crushed by a horse during a post parade. The damage was the worst of his career - a broken pelvis, cracked vertabrae, severed urethra, separated shoulder, and fractured wrist. For the next six months he was on crutches and hooked to a colostomy bag. But he recovered, and presented himself fit and ready to work to the same people who'd been putting him aboard horses without a second thought.

"I'd been riding for the leading trainer," Hawley said. "When I came back and went by his barn, he said, 'I'll try and find one for you.' I'd always been aware of the politics of the racetrack. But I wasn't prepared for that."

Within the year, he decided to retire, "but only if I could get a job working for Woodbine," he said. Wisely, chairman of the board David Wilmot and the people who run Woodbine were hoping to land Hawley. He officially retired on Dominion Day, June 1, 1998, with a lifetime total of 6,449 winners. At the time, there were only eight men in the history of the sport who had ridden more.

"I remember coming to Woodbine for the first time when I was 17, just walking hots," Hawley said. "It was breathtaking back then, all the wide-open space for the barns, the excitement of the grandstand. And you know, I feel the same way about it today."