02/12/2003 12:00AM

When the master talks, best to listen


ARCADIA, Calif. - Among the things that have happened in Johnny Longden's lifetime are the following:

Women's suffrage.


Widespread use of indoor plumbing.

The sinking of the Titanic.

Especially that last one. Longden was 5 when his mother and his three sisters left their home in Wakefield, England, to join the rest of the family in Canada. There were delays along the way, though, and their train to Liverpool arrived too late to catch the big ship making its maiden voyage to North America. Lucky them.

There is little doubt the Longdens would have gone down with the Titanic. Steerage passengers didn't have much luck, and the sport of horse racing would have gone without one of its most colorful personalities.

Instead, the game is privileged once again to recognize another Longden milestone. Valentine's Day at Santa Anita Park is always better known as Longden's birthday, and Friday will be no different. Only this time, for the first time in several years, Longden will be absent. He will turn 96 at home, where he has been confined to his bed the past three months in declining health, so any celebrating will be very low key. The fact that he is alive at age 96 will be miracle enough.

Longden's fingerprints are all over Santa Anita and its neighborhood, from his bronze bust alongside those of Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay in the paddock gardens, to Longden Avenue, a main Arcadia thoroughfare, to his final resting place, which awaits in nearby Live Oak Cemetery.

He won the Santa Anita Handicap four times, the Santa Anita Derby five times, the Santa Margarita five times, and 53 other Santa Anita stakes races.

Saturday's feature, the San Luis Obispo Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on the grass, did not escape Longden's attention either. He won the race four times over a five-year period in 1950's, then added a fifth in 1961 and a sixth as a trainer in 1982.

Joe Steiner likes that last one the best. Steiner hit town in 1980, wringing wet behind the ears and fresh from the Northwest, where he learned about horses from his grandfather and his uncle. They were both named Jack Leonard.

"My grandfather trained for John when he shipped up to northern California and Seattle," Steiner said. "When I was a young kid rooming with my grandpa, I remember John as a cute little guy with a big lower lip. He said" - and here Steiner slipped into Longden's squeaky falsetto - " 'As soon as you learn how to get on a horse, come and see me.'

"I was 16, but I was more like a 12-year-old," Steiner went on. "I was very sheltered. When I got to his barn, Hazel, his wife, said, 'Well, I think John's going to take you under his wing.' But I had no idea what that meant.

"I stayed at his house the first night, and thought it was great. Then he showed me a tack room. 'This is going to be where you stay,' he said. It was just like he started. And that's where I lived for the next two years."

Longden was nearing the end of his training career in the early 1980's, but his stable was still going strong. He had the solid sprinter Kangroo Court and the grass runners Tahitian King and Regal Bearing. Steiner, Longden's young protege, was in top-class action from the start.

"He was very constructive and very critical," Steiner said. "Brutal, actually. I could win a race, and while most people would go, 'Great job!' he would say, 'Congratulations. But here's what you did wrong. You went wide. You should have saved ground. And what were you doing here?'

"His main concern was saving ground," Steiner went on. "He really drilled that into me. I was so impressionable at the time. He was an idol, but he was also like family, and he could really mess my day up by saying just one critical thing. Don't get me wrong. He had plenty of praise, too. I was just a very sensitive little kid.

"And I was very lucky, because John had to learn the hard way. When he was young, he told me he once rode up on the inside and yelled, 'I'm in here!' Some other jock goes, 'You better get out of there.' John said he woke up a week later."

Now age 38, Steiner is still a full-time rider, along with the work he has been doing on the filming of "Seabiscuit." Stakes opportunities have become more rare, though, and Saturday's San Luis Obispo will come and go without him.

Still, there will always be 1982, when a 75-year-old trainer and a 17-year-old apprentice combined to beat them all.

"We had Tahitian King and Regal Bearing going in the San Luis Obispo that year," Steiner said. "John asked me which one I wanted to ride. I liked Tahitian King better, but he said I might want to pick Regal Bearing, because he was training great.

"So I did, and Regal Bearing won the race. It was my first hundred-grander."

And the memory of a lifetime.