Elmont, N.Y. -- As he emerged from the paddock and rode onto the track before the third race at Belmont Park on Thursday afternoon, some of the regulars zeroed in on jockey Jerry Bailey.
"Hey, superstar," one of them called out.
"Nice Derby, but win this one for me," said another.
It was friendly razzing, but it sort of summed up Bailey's new status in the horse-racing world. The spotlight has suddenly focused on the dentist's son from El Paso.
Long considered one of the country's top riders -- well-respected, well-liked and certainly well-paid -- Bailey saw his 18-year career validated a week ago yesterday. In the span of a little more than two minutes at Churchill Downs, Bailey went from solid journeyman to potential Hall of Famer.
"It fulfilled my career," Bailey, 35, said of his victory on Sea Hero, a 12-1 long shot. "Any jockey would have to say that. At the same time, I could have gone on and felt good about my career without winning it. Jerry Bailey would have grown old, lost his hair. But it's very nice to have done it."
It was similar to Tom Kite winning his first major golf tournament, the United States Open, last year at Pebble Beach. Or race-car driver Danny Sullivan winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1985. They had been considered successful in their sports, but those victories put them on another level.
The same thing apparently has happened to Bailey, whose best Derby finish was fourth in 1988 on Proper Reality. Although he won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes on Hansel two years ago and although he has won nearly 3,000 races and nearly $80 million in purses, Bailey finds himself in the blurring swirl of new-found national celebrity going into the 118th Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico.
It is a position he has managed to elude for most of his career.
"I've chosen not to be in the quote-unquote limelight as much as some others," said Bailey, sitting in the jockey's cafeteria at Belmont. "I don't need that. When I first got into the game, it was deeply burned into my mind by my father -- think about the future. Like any athlete, you're not going to be in the game forever. I've tried to keep everything outside the white fences as conservative as I could."
It meant starting his career in the comfortable obscurity of Sunland Park, a little track across the state line in New Mexico. It meant avoiding the bright lights and fast lifestyle of Manhattan when he first came here from Miami 11 years ago. It meant settling down as a quiet suburbanite on Long Island with his wife, Suzee, a former actress and sports reporter for SportsChannel.
While other jockeys who had greater success early, or merely more vices, have either burned out or are on their second and third comebacks, Bailey has steadily been a go-to guy for some of the country's top trainers for most of the past decade. He has had his share of injuries -- the most serious came after a spill at Belmont in 1985, when he broke three vertebrae, three bones in his foot and some ribs -- but has remained fairly healthy for the past seven years.
When talking to others in the business, you hear the same things over and over again about Bailey: dependable, flexible, smart.
"He gets his horse in position to win and keeps him out of trouble," said trainer Frank Brothers, who brought Bailey in to ride Hansel after Randy Romero broke his wrist. "It sounds boring, but it's hard to do. If things aren't going well, he'll make adjustments. He's kind of got ice water in his veins."
Said Mack Miller, the 71-year-old trainer of Sea Hero, who has worked with Bailey for the past eight years: "He's made a gradual progression over the years, like a good doctor or a good lawyer or like anyone else who gets to the top of their profession. He's out here every day at 6 in the morning, with his horses. A lot of jockeys who get fat or rich will sleep until 10. They're the ones who fall by the wayside. Jerry's got a great desire to rank among the best jockeys in the world."
Not in his blood
This isn't a story about a kid who grew up in the bluegrass of Kentucky, in the shadow of the twin spires, riding horses like most ride bikes. James Bailey can remember taking the family horseback riding, but it was his two daughters who were more interested than his only son. Today, one daughter is a nurse and the other is a hospital administrator.
"He'd rather be off shooting basketballs," recalled the elder Bailey, who had a successful children's dental practice. "If he did it [ride horses], it was something to do with the family."
He also wanted to earn some spending money, so the younger Bailey began walking hots and sweeping stalls at Sunland, where his father raced some quarter horses and thoroughbreds. At age 12, he started riding quarter horses in match races there and at the state fair in Albuquerque. ("That's where I learned to get out of the gate fast," he said.)
Still, Bailey wanted to grow up to be a basketball player, but when all you're going to be is 5 feet 5, the chances are pretty slim. He also thought about becoming a football player, but there aren't too many 112-pound wide receivers running around. He wound up managing both teams in high school, but won a letter in wrestling.
"The coach told him, 'You've got a great future in wrestling, so you better quit riding those horses,' " his father said.
By that time, when he was about 16, Bailey knew what he wanted to do. It took winning his first pari-mutuel race at age 17, on a horse called Fetch, to convince him.
"It was fun," he said. "I felt I was pretty good at it. There was nothing I wanted to do more."
But at the request of his mother, who was dying of breast cancer, Bailey tried college. He lasted one semester at the University of Texas-El Paso. With the blessing of his family, Bailey went back to Sunland.
When Dr. Bailey tried to get some local businessmen to represent his son, they did everything but laugh in his face. "They said, 'He's just a rich man's son who wants to come out and play a while,' " the elder Bailey said. "It turned out to be pretty ironic, didn't it?"
The son has become richer than the father. Much richer. Bailey outgrew Sunland quickly, then went to Hawthorne (outside Chicago), where he was the leading rider in 1976 and 1977, then to Florida, where he was the leading jockey at Calder (in Miami) in 1977 and 1978. He had lost his bug -- the weight allowance given to apprentice jockeys -- in 1976, the same year as a phenom named Steve Cauthen.
"It was a tough year to be an apprentice," Bailey said. "When you get overshadowed by a guy like that, it's like writing a great story the year that somebody else wins the Pulitzer Prize. I was happy where I was. I had no jealousy. I wasn't ready for New York in 1978 and 1979. The first time I got a call from an agent here was 1982, and that's the year I came."
The respect Bailey gets within the white fences is immense. He )) recently was elected to his second term as president of the Jockeys' Guild. He was selected by his peers as 1992 winner of the George Woolf Award, given for a combination of sportsmanship and performance. When he won the Preakness, he donated $19,000 to the guild's fund for disabled jockeys rather than taking a car, and did the same thing after winning the Derby.
"He's a good representative for the sport," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "He gets along with everybody, which is rare in this business."
Still, as perfect as Bailey's life seemed to be going on the track, there was something missing at home. For most of the first
seven years of their marriage, Bailey and his wife tried to have children. The success they had in their individual careers did not follow them in their pursuit of becoming parents.
"It was very difficult for the two of us," Suzee said. "We kept asking, 'Why isn't this going for us?' He had a little better attitude than I did, he has a way of keeping a positive outlook. I'm more spiritual. When I was down, he'd pick me up and vice versa. I know that a lot of couples can be pulled apart by something like this. I think it actually got us closer together."
Bailey said: "You have to have a lot of faith when you go through something like that. I definitely developed a stronger sense of faith after a few frustrating years."
A month before their son, Justin Daniel, was born last November through a technique called gamma intra-Fallopian transfer (GIFT), Bailey said the discovery that his wife was pregnant was bigger than winning the Kentucky Derby. "I could have won the Kentucky Derby, and that [the impending birth] would have been my highlight." Now that he has won the Derby, Bailey said, "Nothing can compare with the birth. It's still on top."
From long shot to favorite
It is different this time. When Bailey arrives at Pimlico later this week, he won't be asked about what went wrong in Louisville. More likely, the questions will be about Sea Hero's chances of becoming the first horse since Sunday Silence in 1989 to win the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, or of becoming the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to complete the sweep.
"Instead of going from the favorite to a long shot," Bailey said, "I'll be going from a long shot to the favorite."
Just as the 10th-place finish on Hansel at Churchill Downs two years ago didn't haunt him -- "He had a good trip, he just failed to fire his best shot," Bailey said last week -- the victory there on Sea Hero won't alter his perspective.
The night of Hansel's defeat, Suzee Bailey recalls going back to their hotel room, changing into blue jeans and going out for a barbecue.
"Win or lose, we tried to get back into the reality of life, rather than the essence of the game," she said.
Last Saturday in Louisville, with his wife and infant son back home, Jerry Bailey celebrated the biggest victory of his career "by ordering a chicken sandwich from room service and watching a basketball game."
The next day he was back for the final day at Aqueduct, taking the favorite to a fourth-place finish in a $25,000 maiden race.
"The fans put me right back in my place," Bailey said a couple of days later. "They let me know it. They yelled, 'You're still a piece of garbage.' "
That's what you get when you're a superstar, a potential Hall-of-Famer.
The dentist's son from El Paso can no longer avoid the spotlight.
PROSPECTIVE PREAKNESS FIELD
Horses expected for the 118th running of the Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico. Post time 5:32 p.m. TV: ESPN 3:30-4:30 p.m.; chs. 13, 7, 4:30-6 p.m.
Horse .. .. .. .. .. .. Jockey .. .. .. .. Trainer
Sea Hero .. .. .. .. .. Jerry Bailey .. .. Mack Miller
Prairie Bayou ... .. .. Mike Smith . .. .. Tom Bohannan
Personal Hope ... .. .. Gary Stevens .. .. Mark Hennig
Koluctoo Jimmy Al .. .. Chris McCarron ... Bruce Levine
Union City ... .. .. .. Pat Valenzuela ... D. Wayne Lukas
Cherokee Run . .. .. .. Pat Day . .. .. .. Frank Alexander
Woods Of Windsor ... .. Rick Wilson ... .. Ben Perkins, Jr.
Wild Gale . .. .. .. .. Shane Sellers . .. Mike Doyle
Rockamundo ... .. .. .. No rider ... .. .. Ben Glass
El Bakan .. .. .. .. .. Craig Perret .. .. Alfredo Callejas
BAILEY AT A GLANCE
Earnings .. .. Starts .. .. Wins .. .. Earnings
... .. 390 .. .. . 81 .. .. $3,432,009
Car. ... 18,563 .. . 2,931 .. . $79,131,755
(through May 2) Career highlights * Won 1993 Kentucky Derby on Sea Hero.
Was leading rider at 1992 Belmont fall meeting with 37 victories.
* Was leading rider at 1992 Keeneland spring meeting with 18 victories.
* Finished seventh nationally in purses won in 1992 with $10.8 million.
* Won 1992 Hollywood Gold Cup, Whitney Handicap and
Woodward Stakes aboard Sultry Song.
* Won 1991 Preakness and Belmont Stakes aboard Hansel.
* Won 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Black Tie Affair.
* Was leading rider at 1989 Belmont fall meeting with 32 victories.
* Was leading rider at 1989 Belmont fall meeting with 32 victories.
* Won 1986 Travers Stakes aboard Wise Times.