04/04/2007 11:00PM

Where hard work meets fate

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Don't be misled by the fact that a jockey has never ridden the winner of a Santa Anita Derby or a Kentucky Derby. That doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't know what it takes.

Aaron Gryder, for instance, found his teenage backside firmly planted aboard Ferdinand and Sunday Silence on many occasions during morning workouts for Charlie Whittingham. Ferdinand finished third in the 1986 Santa Anita Derby before winning in Kentucky, while Sunday Silence won them both.

In fact, as Gryder tells it, he was this close (hold thumb and forefinger a hair apart) to getting the mount on Sunday Silence for the 1989 running of the Santa Anita Derby. It's the kind of thing a young jockey tends to remember forever, especially since he had subbed once before aboard the fiery black colt in a late 1988 allowance race. He was aware of the possibilities.

Through the early months of 1989, regular rider Patrick Valenzuela was back on Sunday Silence for victories in an allowance race and the San Felipe Handicap. Gryder, who grew up in the shadow of Santa Anita, was competing in Northern California and commuting south on his Monday-Tuesday "weekends" to work horses for trainers like Whittingham and Eddie Gregson.

Then, in the weeks between the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, Valenzuela was a no-show for Whittingham stakes mounts on consecutive Sundays, including the assignment on Lively One in the San Bernardino Handicap, six days before the local derby. The colt won anyway, under Robbie Davis.

The next morning, when Gryder reported for work duty at the Whittingham barn, he encountered a decidedly frustrated ex-Marine, with Valenzuela on his mind.

"He's on a horse for me Wednesday," Whittingham told Gryder. "If he doesn't show up, you ride this horse for me in the Santa Anita Derby."

Gryder's emotions could be best described as mixed.

"I've never been one to root for anyone not to show up, or for something to go wrong," Gryder said. "It just shows you, though, how you can be so close to something, then for one reason or another it doesn't happen. But it was always an honor to work for Charlie, and just knowing I had that opportunity to ride one of the best horses we ever saw."

History's footnotes will show that Valenzuela made that Wednesday mount, then accompanied Sunday Silence to an 11-length win in the Santa Anita Derby and a 2 1/2-length victory in Kentucky. Too young and resilient to be discouraged, Gryder went on to craft a successful career, winning titles at Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, and Aqueduct before returning to Southern California in late 2005. One month ago, he rode winner No. 3,000.

Gryder is part of the ongoing cultural exchange program between the jockey colonies of New York and California. So far, the East has given up Gryder, Jorge Chavez, and Richie Migliore in return for Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, and a player to be named later. Currently, Migliore and Gryder are locked in a pitched battle for fourth on the Santa Anita standings behind West Coast regulars Garrett Gomez, Victor Espinoza, and David Flores.

"Mig's a little bit older than me [43 to 36], but he's still got that young desire, because you ride that way when you're having fun," Gryder said. "I know how he feels. I'm having the time of my life. Every time I come out of that tunnel for a race, I say thank you for being back here."

On Saturday, Gryder will ride in his second straight Santa Anita Derby for trainer David Hofmans when he accompanies San Felipe Stakes third-place finisher Level Red postward in the field of 10. They will be outsiders, but in the race before, all eyes will be on Gryder and Bay Area hotshot Smokey Stover in the Potrero Grande Handicap.

"Level Red feels like a colt with a lot of potential," Gryder said. "I told Dave after the last race it seemed there was more there, but he was just not responsive when I cued him to deliver. Dave asked about blinkers, and I said they might help, because I think he is a pretty handy horse. Maybe the blinkers will be just enough to give him a little different mind-set. I like our chances."

Down the line, Level Red's San Felipe third to Cobalt Blue and Air Commander might look pretty good, although they have yet to run again. As for Saturday, there have been less-accomplished Santa Anita Derby fields, but not recently.

"The race is definitely wide open," Gryder said. "I'm not sure there's a Kentucky Derby winner in there."

If there is, don't look for him to win Saturday's race. Gato del Sol, Ferdinand, Real Quiet, Charismatic, Giacomo - they all were duds at Santa Anita on the first weekend in April, but ended up on top of the racing world by the first Saturday in May. In fact, the last Santa Anita Derby winner to take the Kentucky Derby was - what a surprise - Sunday Silence.

"I was just 18 when I got on him for his first five-eighths," Gryder said. "I couldn't have told you he'd go on to win the Derby, the Preakness, and the Breeders' Cup Classic. I just knew he was the best horse I'd ever sat on, a real runner. But what did I know?"

As it turned out, quite a lot.