05/02/2007 12:00AM

There's no quit in Albarado


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Nobody deserves to win a Kentucky Derby. It takes hard work, talent, and perseverance, and just the right amount of being in the right place at the right time.

Even then, the odds are staggering, even for a jockey who rides for the best outfits. Start with one Kentucky Derby per year and spread them over a 25-year career, but figure there will be many of those years when no Derby mount appears at all. Subtract further opportunities owing to those inevitable periods when the first Saturday in May is spent in a cast or on crutches. Then factor in things that can happen in the race itself - bad luck, rotten weather, slow horses - and the message is clear. To dream for that Kentucky Derby trophy above all else is to court nothing short of madness.

Consider some of the great names of the modern era who have missed the mark, names who also adorn the walls of the Hall of Fame. Johnny Adams rode 13 Derbies, managing only a pair of seconds for his trouble. George Woolf and Manny Ycaza were both 0 for 9, while Ted Atkinson, Sandy Hawley, and John Rotz each rode the Derby six times without winning. They are no less for the lack of a Derby, but it might have helped them get a better table.

In recent years, Derby karma has been doing a little house cleaning, making sure that Edgar Prado, Mike Smith, Stewart Elliott, Jose Santos, and Jorge Chavez reach the end of their fine careers with at least one Derby win in the bag. Still, there is work to do, with Alex Solis, John Velazquez, Corey Nakatani, David Flores, Russell Baze, and Richie Migliore still waiting in the wings for their name to be called.

At the age of 33, it might be unseemly for Robby Albarado to be impatient about snagging that first Kentucky Derby, so he isn't. He remembers each of his eight previous mounts, chapter and verse, and he beams with anticipation at the thought of riding his ninth Derby on Saturday when he throws a leg over Curlin, the unbeaten winner of the Arkansas Derby. If it happens, pop the cork. If not, he will be back.

Albarado has made a habit of coming back, time after time, from injuries that might have spelled the end of the line. His lean, steel cable of a body has taken a fearful beating - mostly between the ages of 22 and 27 - giving him every right to mention that on this particular morning he felt every inch his age, and then some.

"I was counting the steps it took me to get to the hot tub," Albarado said Wednesday between radio interviews on the Churchill Downs backstretch. "It's all that titanium I have in me."

A tour of the Albarado metal collection begins with a rod in his right wrist (November 1996), works its way to the implants that helped repair the left side of his pelvis (October 2000) , and ends with a flourish on the left side of his head (June 1998), where delicate surgery was required to remove pieces of shattered skull and repair the damaged area with a titanium mesh.

"Actually, the plate in my head is the one that never bothers me," Albarado said. "I fell and fractured my skull again another time, and just like that the hearing in my left ear cleared up, better than ever."

Albarado wears a helmet. Really, he does. He had to, otherwise he would not have been allowed to win multiple riding titles at Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds, on his way to a current career total (through Tuesday) of 3,500 wins. Nor would he have ended up on Mineshaft throughout his 2003 Horse of the Year campaign, when they teamed to win 7 of 9, including the Pimlico Special, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

"People have got no idea what jockeys like Robby go through sacrificing their body," said Mineshaft's trainer, Neil Howard. "You can't keep him down."

Given the coincidence of places and dates, it could be said that Albarado comes by his recovery skills naturally. He was born in the town of Lafayette, deep in Louisiana's Cajun jockey country, on Sept. 11, 1973, which means his last six birthdays haven't been quite the same. And although Albarado now considers himself a Louisville resident, his ties to New Orleans remain deep and abiding. He was not spared the ravages of the floods of 2005.

"Our home there had 10, 12 feet of water," Albarado said. "I had to do it over again from the ground up. But we had adequate insurance, and it looks like new. Because we have our primary home in Kentucky, it wasn't that much of a hardship for me. I just tried to put myself in the shoes of people that lived there, who depended on New Orleans and lost everything."

Albarado was among the familiar personalities who returned to New Orleans last winter for the re-opening of the storm and flood-damaged Fair Grounds Race Track. It was, at best, bittersweet.

"Some days it was depressing, seeing whole neighborhoods gone where I grew up, the people gone, places never opening again," Albarado said. "But New Orleans will be back."

He should know.