01/25/2006 12:00AM

Thinking man's jockey ready to say farewell

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Jerry Bailey, shown at Monday's Eclipse Awards dinner, will end his 32-year riding career on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - When Jerry Bailey throws a leg over Silver Tree late Saturday afternoon in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park, he is not quite sure how he will feel.

At such moments, when a fat purse is at stake and expectations are high among owners, trainers, and horseplayers, it has been Bailey's habit to shut down the heart and go with the head. Always the thinking man's jockey, Bailey could be counted on to make the right moves at the right time, giving his horse every possible chance to convert talent into cold, hard cash.

Saturday, though, will be different. On Saturday afternoon Jerry Dale Bailey, at the age of 48, will pull on the white pants for the last time, wrap one last knot in the reins, and throw his final cross. After Saturday there will be no more tense moments in the gate, no more whips switched in the heat of battle, no more of those sweet moments at the wire, when a nose dropped at the perfect moment and the difference was crystal clear: There is winning, and then there is all the rest.

By any reasonable measure, Bailey will go down in sports history as one of the most successful jockeys ever to ply the trade. Modern dollars put him second to Pat Day with more than $295 million in purses earned, while the rigid currency of 5,892 total winners ranks him among the top 15 on the all-time list.

More than anything, however, it was the kind of races Bailey won that placed him in the rare company of such fabled "money riders" as Todd Sloan, Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Bill Shoemaker, and Chris McCarron. Quantity is nice, but quality always pays best, and nothing spells that out better than the list of 216 Grade 1 races - including 15 Breeders' Cups and six Triple Crown events - won by Bailey during his 32-year career.

It is also important to note that it wasn't until 1990, at the ripe old age of 33, that Bailey was able to penetrate the bottom rung of the national top 10 in terms of purses. His closest contemporaries - including Eddie Delahoussaye, Jose Santos, Pat Day, Randy Romero, and McCarron - were already superstars, winning Breeders' Cups, Kentucky Derbies, and national titles long before Bailey became a widespread household name.

Bailey will point out that both his life and his career changed forever in 1989 when he shed an ugly dependence on alcohol. If nothing else, the stats back him up. During the first 16 years of his career, from his start at Sunland Park in 1974 through 1989 (seven of them as a New York/Florida regular), his mounts banked about $44 million. In the 16 full seasons since then, the horses ridden by Bailey have earned $251 million.

"When I first went to New York, I asked Eddie Maple, 'How did you make it here?', because I knew he came from the Midwest," Bailey recalled this week.

"Eddie told me that he worked hard, he stood in line, and his turn finally came," Bailey said. "So that's what I went by. Then, once I got my turn, I tried to work harder than anybody else so I didn't have to give up my place."

Bailey offers a fairly simple formula for his success, one that he would impart to any young rider on the make.

"If you can be honest and work hard, if you have the talent it's eventually going to show through," he said.

"Showing up in the morning is part of it," Bailey went on. "But a lot of guys will do that, so you're just one of the faces in the crowd. What I tried to do is prepare better and harder for each race, by watching videos of each race, and by studying the Racing Form.

"After that, your basic personality goes a long way toward how much you can convince somebody to ride you," he said. "Public relations is a huge part, although a big myth about Jerry Bailey is that I went directly to a lot of owners for mounts. I can count on one hand the number of owners I called directly.

"Trainers - that's different," Bailey noted. "If a trainer is going to choose between five equal riders, the more of a personal relationship you can have with a trainer, the more chances you have of landing a good mount. And that's one area I'm not sure hard work would improve. If you don't have a charismatic personality, or at least try, hard work's not going to change it, because you never know on what level you might connect with someone."

Bailey concedes that he hardly deserves to be anointed Mr. Charisma.

"Usually I'm just trying to concentrate on what's going on, and trying not to forget anything," he said. "I end up looking like a stone out there. It's really not the case, and a lot of people have taken it the wrong way. But I can understand it.

"One area you can work on is being fairly well read," he said. "I don't mean well educated, but well read. If you just read a variety of things and be fairly up to date on current events, it really helps you interact with people in a social scene. You'll find if you know something about 20 things, most often you'll find a connection with somebody among those 20 things. A young rider might say I don't need to know anything about current events or politics to be a jockey. But you never know when it might come in handy."

It also helped that Bailey went the last 20 years of his career without a major injury. Literally, no other top rider can claim such a run of good fortune.

"More than anything, I got to the point where I was able to be very selective, and ride the better horses in the better races at the better tracks," Bailey said. "The more cheap races you ride, the more horses you're either on or around that have infirmities that can cause breakdowns. By virtue of that, it minimized the chances that what I was riding would have something bad happen to it, or the horses I was riding with have something happen."

It is the nature of the business that between the time this is written and the moment Bailey dismounts from Silver Tree, he is still in the cross-hairs of potential disaster. Such a reality will help Bailey get through Saturday, then he can enjoy the first day of his retirement, and beyond.

"My son's already planned it," Bailey said, referring to 13-year-old Justin Bailey. "We're going for breakfast Sunday morning. And after that he's already planned my first week's menu - morning, noon, and night."

In fact, Bailey's greatest challenge on his final day of riding might just be a sudden attack of emotions. Is it possible? Will stone-face shed a tear?

"Jeez, you know what? I could," Bailey confessed. "I just hope I can concentrate enough to get through the races."