11/14/2002 1:00AM

Tall in the saddle: McCarthy retires after doing it his way

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Twenty years have passed since Mike McCarthy was an apprentice jockey in Maryland. But he still vividly recalls the taunts he had to endure every day when he went into the jockeys' room.

At 5-foot-9 1/2, McCarthy doesn't look like a jockey. And his fellow riders let him know it, jokingly suggesting the NBA was where he belonged. "You're in the wrong sport," the journeymen would tell the rookie. "Why don't you go try out for the Baltimore Bullets? I hear they're looking for players."

McCarthy got a similar lack of respect from trainers, who took one look at him and decided they didn't want him to go anywhere near one of their horses.

"If I would have listened to everybody who told me I couldn't be a jockey, I would never even have gotten on a horse," McCarthy said. "But I wanted to be a jockey so bad that nothing else mattered. My determination got me through."

That stubbornness helped McCarthy get the last laugh on his tormentors. The tall, skinny guy who looked so out of place atop a Thoroughbred wound up riding more than 2,900 winners in a 21-year career.

McCarthy has now chosen to go out gracefully, while he's still at the top of his game. At age 39, McCarthy will ride for the last time on Sunday's closing-day program at Delaware Park, where he has dominated the jockey standings since making the track his home base in 1996.

McCarthy will finish the 2002 meet as Delaware's leading rider, the sixth time he has earned that honor in his seven seasons at the Stanton, Del., track. He rode nearly 1,100 winners during that span, including a track-record 218 in 1997. Over the past three seasons, McCarthy was the track's top jockey in stakes races, winning 21 stakes, including seven this year.

McCarthy said that he could continue to ride and put up good numbers for at least several more years but that his desire is waning and his body is fatigued. He tacks 114 pounds but said his weight wasn't an issue.

"I have the opportunity to stop when I'm still doing well," McCarthy said. "I'm fortunate to go out like this."

He already has mapped out a plan to remain in the sport as a trainer, a challenge that's probably as stiff as the one he faced when he first tried to break in as an apprentice rider. He intends to operate a small public stable at Gulfstream Park this winter and wants to return to Delaware, where he and his wife, Krista, and their three children live, next spring.

"Being a trainer is going to give me the excitement I think I need to continue in the horse racing business," McCarthy said. "It will be a serious challenge. A lot of good people have failed trying to make the transition from jockey to trainer. But I think I'm up for it."

McCarthy wasn't an instant success as a jockey. He toiled for nearly 10 years in near-obscurity at Finger Lakes before moving his tack to Philadelphia Park, where he was the leading rider in 1994 and 1995. He then took the biggest risk of his career by moving to Delaware, mainly because of the bigger purses offered after the infusion of slots money. The competition in the jockey colony was keener and McCarthy was unknown to nearly all of the trainers on the grounds.

"I told my wife I was willing to give Delaware a try for three years to see if I could make it," McCarthy said. "The only business I was getting was from trainer Bob Camac, who I rode for at Philly. The way things have worked out here for me have been incredible."

McCarthy won the first of his six riding titles his first season at Delaware, and the following year, he was co-recipient of the state's athlete of the year award, selected by the Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association.

If McCarthy handles his transition to training anywhere as smoothly as he did his move to Delaware, he's in store for a great second career.