03/21/2003 12:00AM

Yankee Doodle steeplechasers

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CHELTENHAM, England - "Let me tell you, it's tough to get rides over here."

That was the only comment that riled us in six weeks. And it always came in response to, "Hello, this is Gus Brown, two-time champion steeplechase jockey from America, looking for rides."

Gus and I took six weeks off this winter and went to Britain, for him to ride and for me to write. Going in we knew how difficult it was to get an opportunity to ride in British steeplechases. We didn't need to be told. That was exactly why we wanted to make an impact on British jump racing - because we knew how daunting it would be.

British steeplechasing has no peers. It's not comparable to American steeplechasing. It's more popular than British flat racing. And it's in the blood of the fans and the participants.

Racing goes six and sometimes seven days a week, with an average of three meets a day, year round. Each day it's a different venue, one day on one end of the country, the next day on the other. The miles pile up on the car and the bruises pile up on the body.

Champion jockey Tony McCoy remains on a mission to win 300 races in a season. He's ridden more races this season than Gus has ridden in his career. Along with those 300 winners come the inevitable falls. British steeplechase jockeys hit the ground more in a week than American flat jockeys do in a year.

There are no cracks to crawl through when it comes to breaking into the sport.

As trainer Jim Old told Gus, "You're trying to do something in six weeks that others have failed to accomplish in six years. Nobody cares if you were champion jockey in America. Everybody wants to ride races here. I got jockeys falling over top of me wanting to ride anything."

That was our mission: to ride something.

Here's what we got: Eight rides for Gus, six stories in The Racing Post for me. Not bad, considering the opposition.

First, Diamond Dazzler, a 100-1 shot in a bumper (flat race) at Folkestone on a rainy Tuesday. Next came Sandown and Miss Koen, a maiden against winners. At Hereford, Rosy Boy deposited Gus on the ground and was hopelessly beaten. Miss Koen finished last in a tougher race at Kempton. Harpoon went resolutely through the field - backward - at Ludlow. River Gold crept into contention and then hung to finish fifth at Huntingdon (maybe the 667-day layoff caught up to him). Gallik Dawn, at 50-1, finished last in an invitational bumper at Stratford.

But there was one beacon of light at the end of the long tunnel: the Cheltenham Festival, March 11-13. All our hustling had a payoff.

Being a jump jockey - or a writer for that matter - you need some other modes of income. We had talked to our contacts in America about buying horses in England. We found a horse and called Jack Fisher, a steeplechase trainer in Maryland. He regretfully informed us that his owner, Sonny Via, had already bought a German horse and wouldn't buy anything else. Ah well.

Then the next day, The Racing Post ran a story about that German horse, Saitensohn, who had been purchased, the paper said, by an unidentified American owner. The horse was going to trainer Jonjo O'Neill to run at the Festival before heading back to the States.

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner.

We called Fisher. He said Gus could ride the horse if it were all right with O'Neill. We were at O'Neill's the next morning. He said Gus could ride the horse if it were all right with Fisher. For once in our lives, we had all the information. Ron Anderson - Jerry Bailey's agent - would have been licking his chops.

Our trip would have a good ending. This was like a boy coming off the bush tracks of Louisiana and in six weeks having a ride in the Derby. For an American jump jockey to earn a ride at the Festival on a British-based horse - well, it just doesn't happen.

"I've spent my whole career trying to get a ride like that at the Festival," jockey Carl Rafter said. "You managed it in six weeks. Don't ever forget what you did over here."

We went to O'Neill's yard, Jackdaws Castle (a jumping version of Ballydoyle), three times a week to school and work Saitensohn. A 5-year-old, he horse was 3 for 3 in Britain and headed for the Royal and SunAlliance Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, the ultimate stop on the world-wide steeplechasing tour.

Saitensohn didn't win. He finished 11th in the 19-runner race. Gus placed him in perfect stalking position but he was outfooted ("tapped for toe" as they say in England) as the field roared down the hill to the final two flights of hurdles. The outcome was secondary, at least on Gus's first trip to Britain.

"To ride at the Festival made it all worth it," said Brown. "The place has a presence like nowhere else. You can feel it in your bones. I had so many people come up to me and say, 'You looked good out there.' I think they were surprised."

The British are secure in the fact that they are good at steeplechasing. It's their game. Cheltenham is an Irish-Anglo competition, and the hopes of careers, lifetimes, families are on the line.

America has virtually no presence at Cheltenham: There was Inkslinger, who won twice in three days at the 1973 Festival; the fading memory of four-time Eclipse Award winner Flatterer, who nearly pulled off the Champion Hurdle in 1987; Blythe Miller rode two longshots for her father last year. And now, Gus Brown and Saitensohn finishing 11th.

The American presence runs slightly deeper in the rest of British steeplechasing. Jay Trump and Ben Nevis won the Grand National, and Lonesome Glory won two stakes on Transatlantic trips. But Americans are still a novelty to the British, mostly because of the infrequency of their impact.

Nicky Henderson trained three-time Champion Hurdle winner See You Then. Henderson watched Flatterer nearly upend his horse in the 1987 Hurdle Champion and he watched Gus gallop horses at his Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn.

"It's a great challenge, but it's always terribly difficult for an American jockey because we have so much more jumping over here," Henderson said. "A number of flat jockeys have come over and they've found it tough to break in, too. Steve Cauthen was the one rider that could do it. I suppose [the Americans] understand how to time races, but it's bloody difficult to adapt to everything. It's not just left-handed, left-handed, left-handed."

Each day brings a new challenge. Today, it's right-handed and sharp on turf that's good. Tomorrow, it's left-handed and sweeping on bottomless ground. The next day, something else.

"But it's like anything," said Henderson. "They have to get on a few horses and win a few races to get noticed. Unfortunately, that's the only way to do it. They need a bit of luck."

Our luck came when Sonny Via bought Saitensohn, but it ran out when the horse failed to fire up the long unforgiving hill at Cheltenham.

Brough Scott, a former jockey turned journalist, knows the score as well as anyone.

"For jump racing, these two months are the ultimate challenge, to ride at Cheltenham and the Grand National," Scott said. "Anybody who ever dreams of riding horses fast over obstacles dreams of taking part in these races. When you come here, you see why."

Yes, we saw why. Being a steeplechase participant in America, you go everywhere with pride. Yes, it's a smaller arena than in England, but the dedication and commitment is as great as in any other field. Gus Brown is as professional a jockey as Tony McCoy or Jerry Bailey for that matter.

But the stakes run higher in steeplechasing. And that's why 50,000-plus fans flock to Cheltenham.

"Both human and equine, it's the risk," said Scott. "I always have a bittersweet feel before these big races. The sweetness of the challenge and the glory. The bitterness of the risk they're about to take. There's a rawness about it. Of course, there's a great celebration. Of course, there's a lot of betting. But when you put your goggles down, you know you are going on the line. And the [spectators] do, too. You only have to watch it once to know exactly what is happening. Tony McCoy is the greatest jockey we've ever seen and Tony McCoy has been on the floor four times [at the Festival]. He's gotten hurt, it's been a struggle and that's the way it always should be."

We found that out. It was a relentless struggle with brief moments of accomplishment followed by long bouts of frustration. But isn't that what all challenges are made of?

McCoy went to the Festival as the favorite for the leading rider award. He left with a broken collarbone after falling four times in three days.

As for Gus, he will try it again.

"If I wasn't married with a house, a dog, a horse, I'd stay forever," Gus said before heading back to the American circuit and a ride in Aiken, S.C., on Saturday. "I'd like to go for a longer spell next year, really give it a good try and see if I could make it."

Maybe one day an American jump jockey, perhaps Gus, will say, "Yeah, it was tough. But it wasn't that tough."

Sean Clancy was the co-champion steeplechase jockey in the United States in 1998.