12/08/2006 12:00AM

Top jockeys hit the Strip

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LAS VEGAS - It's that time of the season. Here in Las Vegas it's a little hard to tell the holiday lighting from the neon jungle, but not too long ago this town all but shut down between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.

Not anymore. Now, Las Vegas is as lively as Times Square during the holiday season. Jump-starting the final month each year is the National Finals Rodeo, which fills the town with cowboys who ride and party hearty and cowgirls who shop until they drop.

While the rodeo brings in big bucks (pun intended), Las Vegas also hosted a few racing-related events that put a little tinsel on those everyday horseplayers.

First, the annual Jockeys' Guild meetings were held early last week at the Excalibur Hotel Casino. After a few years away, it was nice to see the riders - both active and retired - in town for a little business and pleasure. Little guys with big 10-gallon hats were sighted up and down the Strip. Jocks, you know, love the rodeo, and many took in at least one night's event while mapping out the guild's future. Even off the Strip, a retired Eddie Delahoussaye was seen at the Orleans Hotel Casino to meet some in-town friends.

Two special events last week brought horseplayers to race books for more than just betting. On Monday, jockey Garrett Gomez appeared at the South Point Hotel Casino race book. Along with some cash drawings and complimentary photos of him aboard Artie Schiller after their Breeders' Cup Mile victory, Gomez talked candidly about the new synthetic racing surfaces he rode over this year. His comparisons of Polytrack at Keeneland and the new Cushion Track at Hollywood Park gave attendees a unique insight into the future of racing surfaces.

After suggesting that Discreet Cat may still have his best races ahead of him, Gomez, who is the regular rider of the promising 3-year-old, was off to hit the links with his wife, Pam, leaving behind a full house of satisfied fans.

On Wednesday, at the Orleans Hotel Casino race book, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens took the stage to promote his clothing line, Sturdee Bros., and a reprint of his book, "The Perfect Ride." Now retired, Stevens spends his days looking at prospective future champions in the sales rings and serves as a racing analyst for NBC and the Television Games Network. Stevens, decked out in full cowboy threads, was as candid as Gomez at his seminar and gave some great views from both sides of the aisle, taking his skills as a jockey and applying them to handicapping.

Surprisingly, except for the obvious danger and fitness it takes to ride horses, Stevens believes that handicapping races is harder than riding them. He said that when he was riding he knew what to do to negotiate a race, but to handicap what a rider might do in the same circumstance against all the others in a race is a little harder to predict from his seat on the set.

Like Gomez, Stevens believes synthetic tracks are the wave of the future. Both riders say that turf horses take to the synthetic tracks better than dirt. According to Stevens, the cushion that synthetic tracks provide in contrast to dirt makes the surface easier on horses and riders. Instead of the jarring strides on dirt tracks, synthetics give an impression of floating over the track.

With the well-documented cartilage problems that Stevens endured in his knee joints, which ultimately led to a premature retirement, he was asked the question of whether he might return to riding now that the kinder synthetic tracks are here. Stevens, who said he promised himself to take a full year away from even galloping horses in the mornings, responded: "One should never say never."