01/15/2003 12:00AM

Thanks for the memories, Eddie D.


ARCADIA, Calif. - Eddie Delahoussaye is a humble man, sincere in his appreciation of the life he has enjoyed. He meant it when he said that he wants absolutely no fuss made over his retirement, no ceremonies, no parades, no victory lap around the stadium. Given a choice, he would prefer to slip quietly into the background, surround himself with his family and close friends, and let the game roll on without him.

Sorry, Eddie. Can't do it.

Can't ignore more than 30 years worth of indelible memories, carved into racing's thick hide. Can't forget the sight of Eddie D., his long back perfectly balanced, his horse relaxed and loving it. Can't forget the sound of Delahoussaye on the march, closing in like a forest fire.

"Hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh," he would grunt, louder with every stride.

"I hated that sound," Chris McCarron would say. "You knew Eddie was coming. And that wasn't good."

With his list of accomplishments, his stature as a consummate professional, Delahoussaye deserves the full treatment. His retirement should trigger a nationwide tour, with celebrations galore and big bowls of jambalaya all around. Wherever Delahoussaye rode, he left his mark, and so - with apologies to the modest Mr. D. - here is how his grand finale should have gone.

Kick it off in Louisiana, near his birthplace of New Iberia, home of Tabasco sauce and freakishly good young riders. Delahoussaye signed an apprentice contract with a trainer named T.C. Pointer and rode the horses of racing commissioner Edwin Biso. He won his first race on June 29, 1968, on a $2,000 claimer called Brown Shill. He was 16.

A few days later, Delahoussaye met his future wife, Juanita, at a Fourth of July barbecue. Yeah, that was a pretty good year.

Delahoussaye eventually left his mark at all the Louisiana tracks, but it was what he did after leaving home that put him into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame alongside names like Bill Dickey, Terry Bradshaw, Pete Maravich, Y.A. Tittle, Archie Manning, and Willis Reed.

From Thistledown in Ohio to Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and summertime stints at Monmouth Park and Arlington Park, Delahoussaye worked the eastern half of the continent until he became North American champion in 1978, with 384 winners. Racetrackers and fans at all those tracks would roll out the red carpet for one last chance to high-five Eddie D.

Delahoussaye became a full-time Californian in 1979 and soon snagged the nickname Disco Eddie. Okay, so the boy enjoyed his occasional evenings out. Del Mar does that to rookies. But nothing stopped him from his appointed rounds, which included a remarkable relationship with the filly Bold 'n Determined in 1980 (when they beat Genuine Risk on the square), his two victories over John Henry aboard Mehmet (on both turf and dirt, East and West), and growing associations with such trainers as Neil Drysdale, Charlie Whittingham, Bobby Frankel, and Eddie Gregson.

Through the 1980's, there was nowhere Delahoussaye did not win. Still, it is entirely appropriate to end the tour at Santa Anita Park, in Delahoussaye's own backyard, where he made history with chronic regularity.

He made his first impression on Oct. 22, 1978, when he swooped into town and rode six races on the card. Delahoussaye had two winners and four seconds, and one of those wins was aboard It's in the Air in the Oak Leaf Stakes.

On March 10, 1993, he won his 5,000th race at Santa Anita on a horse named Ackler.

On Nov. 6, 1993, he won two Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita with Cardmania and Hollywood Wildcat.

Again at Santa Anita, on Feb. 7, 1999, Delahoussaye won his 6,000th race race with Sweetcakesanshakes.

Then there was the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1990, when the spotlight was supposed to be squarely on Bill Shoemaker. Santa Anita was offering one last time around as a farewell to Shoemaker's singular career, and Shoe was on a live one for Julio Canani, a horse named Patchy Groundfog.

Everything was going fine, except that somebody forgot to give Delahoussaye and his mount, Exemplary Leader, a copy of the script. As a result, the trophy for winning The Legend's Last Ride became a proud part of the Delahoussaye collection. If he harbored any regrets for stealing part of Shoemaker's show, he hid them very well.

"You bet I wanted to beat him," Delahoussaye said. "All the times that little so-and-so beat me for the money? It was the least I could do."

This legend's last ride came in the sixth race at Del Mar on Aug. 30, 2002, on the backstretch of a grass course bathed in late afternoon sun, when Seeingisbelieving broke a leg and lost his life, and Delahoussaye sustained injuries that have yet to heal.

It was a hard, bitter way to end such a glorious career, and a cosmic cheat for Delahoussaye's legion of fans. Fortunately, though, the man is still very much among us, very much alive, and well enough to accept our eternal gratitude for a job well done.