05/11/2005 12:00AM

Who will fill void left by Douglas?


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Rene Douglas didn't even try to hide his wistfulness. From his home in Southern California, where he is one of the leading riders on a glamourous racing circuit, he still pined for the Illinois prairie.

For four years at Arlington Park, Douglas was king. In 2001 he showed up on the track doorstep - little-known in these parts - and won more races than anyone else that summer and the next three. In 2002, Douglas equaled a record for stakes wins at Arlington. His career, static and unfocused when he first arrived, had found a direction.

"It was like I couldn't do anything wrong," Douglas said. "I wasn't happy until I got to Arlington. I was just riding day by day."

But for Friday's 2005 Arlington opener, Douglas is 2,000 miles away. He shifted his tack to California last fall - his second attempt on the left coast - and made himself stick. At the Santa Anita meet that ended April 18, Douglas finished second in the standings with 58 wins and led the jockey colony with $3.4 million in purses. His wife and two children are in Florida, and his heart is in Chicago, but Douglas can't just walk away from California.

"Not many jockeys get the chance I've had," said Douglas, 38. "Before, when I was out here, I had the chance and I blew it. It's like a wave. I'm on top right now, I'm in the place everybody dreams to be, and I got to take my chance."

One of the riders hoping to take Douglas's place - Shaun Bridgmohan - was driving west toward Arlington on Tuesday in a Lexus GS 300. Bridgmohan, 25, a native of Jamaica and the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jocky of 1997, has been a regular on the New York circuit for seven years.

"I was the fifth-leading rider in New York last year," Bridgmohan said. "I do very well there. But I figured Chicago's a nice place. Arlington's a beautiful place. Why not give it a try? I'm pretty much excited about it. Change is good."

Bridgmohan might have seen the lift that Douglas got when he started summering here. And if he didn't, Dennis Cooper might have pointed it out. Cooper is the agent who partnered with Douglas and helped make him the Arlington kingpin. Before the Douglas days, Cooper had done the same with Mark Guidry. But as he waited to see how Douglas would do in California, Cooper spent the winter in Florida playing golf, stuck in a luxury limbo. Convinced Douglas wasn't coming back, he picked up Bridgmohan, who had parted with his agent.

The silver-haired, lanky Cooper beats most everyone to the racetrack in the morning. A plug of tobacco in his cheek, he's cocky, good natured, high-energy, and fiercely competitive.

"I have a hard time imagining myself not having a job, but I didn't," said Cooper. "When you've spent the last seven months doing as little as I've been doing, you better believe you're going to get out there and work."

Already, Cooper has lined up plenty of mounts for Bridgmohan on opening weekend. Bridgmohan flew here May 2 to work horses and said he's ready to roll. "Just give me the right horse, and I will fit in fine," he said.

Is Bridgmohan the new Douglas? Too soon to say. But there are other riders who can fill the void. James Graham has been up to his usual tricks here - working from dawn and hustling his way to wins. Graham is 26 but began race-riding just two years ago. Born and raised in Ireland, Graham had an awkward, European style at first, but his skill set has expanded rapidly, and his career has taken off. Fifth in the Arlington standings last year, Graham was the second-leading rider at the Fair Grounds meet, fourth at Keeneland, and as Arlington begins he ranks 24th nationally in wins, 27th in earnings.

"I don't look at this as making money," said Graham. "I just look at it as fun. At home [in Ireland], I was probably getting to ride one a month. At Fair Grounds this winter, I worked 15 in one morning, rode the whole card, and I was still bouncing that night."

There was no bounce in Chris Emigh on Tuesday afternoon. He could barely get out of bed after being thrown and stepped on in a spill Monday at Hawthorne. No matter. The injuries were bumps and bruises, and Emigh won the Hawthorne title by 32 winners,

his second straight dominant Hawthorne meet. Last year at Arlington, Emigh finished third in wins but had 54 fewer than Douglas.

"It's hard to tell how things are going to go this year, but at the beginning of the meet, everyone starts at zero," said Emigh, 34. "Without Douglas, people should have more opportunities to win some of the big races."

It will be strange this season not to hear the shouts of "Rene!" after another stakes win. Arlington's weekend crowds flout the racetrack stereotype: few cynical, downtrodden horseplayers, many fresh-looking young families.

Douglas recalled: "I remember seeing a little girl holding a sign that said, 'Rene Rules.' They were really rooting for me. That broke my heart."