04/22/2004 11:00PM

12 years later, Hoonan rides again

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AUBURN, Wash. - When Debbie Hoonan drove Blameitontherain to a last-gasp victory in last Saturday's seventh race at Emerald Downs, she experienced a rush of emotion that had been missing from her life for more than a decade.

"It could have been the Kentucky Derby," she said. "I wouldn't have felt any better."

Last weekend was the first time Hoonan had ridden in a race in nearly 12 years, and she won aboard her third mount.

Hoonan originally burst onto the Northwest racing scene in 1988, when she was the leading apprentice at Yakima Meadows, Longacres, and Portland Meadows. Her career soon ran into trouble, however, and she missed most of the next three years with injuries and weight problems. She made a notable comeback at the final Longacres meeting in 1992, when she won the prestigious Skelly award after being nominated by her peers and selected by a vote of the fans, but that was her last hurrah.

When she tried to continue riding at Yakima Meadows, Hoonan found that she could not control her weight and was forced to retire. To her, it seemed that her career had ended with a whimper and not a bang, and she was left with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction.

"I knew that I should have done better," she said. "If I had been more patient and listened to my body, I would have accomplished more. I also would have gotten more joy out of my work. Instead I tried to work harder and harder, and I worked myself right into the ground. I was exhausted and sore all the time. Looking back, I can see how I set myself up to burn out."

Hoonan subsequently had a series of interesting-sounding jobs. She was a carriage driver on the East Coast, she fished for lobster in Maine, she did landscaping, and she was a computer programmer for her family's embroidery business in Washington. She also returned to the track at regular intervals, galloping such horses as Serena's Song, Thunder Gulch, and Tabasco Cat for trainer D. Wayne Lukas in California during one stretch.

For the past three Emerald Downs seasons, Hoonan has worked and galloped horses for trainers Larry and Sharon Ross. Her prize pupil is Ema Bovary, whom she galloped here last summer and whom she recently accompanied to Keeneland, where Ema Bovary won for the ninth straight time in the $175,000 Vinery Madison Stakes.

"I knew she was special from the first time I got on her," Hoonan said. "She is definitely the Alpha female. She has muscles that other horses just don't have, and she knows she is good."

Galloping and working horses was and remains satisfying for Hoonan, but she remained disappointed with her riding career. She thought she had no alternative but to learn to live with that discontent, but then her sister provided inspiration by losing 50 pounds after giving birth to a baby last year.

"I decided to go on the same diet she was on, which involved giving up carbohydrates, sugar, and, for me, alcohol," she said. "I was just doing it for my health, but pretty soon I got light and it dawned on me. I could ride again."

Hoonan, who is now 37, has no idea how much weight she lost.

"I never wanted to weigh myself when I was fat," she explained.

What she does know is that she can now tack 116 pounds, and that has given her a second chance.

"I want to do it right this time," she said. "I want to enjoy what I'm doing, and I am enjoying it. I honestly feel younger than I did 12 years ago, and I'm not having any trouble at all keeping the weight off," she said.

Hoonan doesn't know how long she will ride or how many races she will win, but said she thinks those considerations are secondary.

"The main thing about this go-round is that, when all is said and done, I'll know I did all I could to reach my potential. I tried to reach my potential before, but I didn't know how to do it. I'm grateful for a second chance."

Another of the horses Hoonan works for trainer Sharon Ross, Zona De Impacto, will make his Emerald Downs debut in Sunday's Seattle Handicap.

Like Ema Bovary, Zona De Impacto was purchased out of Chile by Rick Beal, who now owns him in partnership with Lana Ramsey. Zona De Impacto, a 5-year-old son of the Sadler's Wells stallion Stagecraft, won six of his last seven starts in Chile before resuming his career at Golden Gate, where he ran seventh, then third, and most recently second in three six-furlong tries against $50,000 optional claiming company.

"He's coming around very nicely," Ross said. "He has run better with each start, and he really worked well for Debbie last Sunday. We're hoping he can be competitive with the stakes horses here sprinting, but our real hope for him is going long. He hasn't tried going long yet, but that's what he is bred to do and that's what he seems to want."