11/14/2001 12:00AM

From Alamo to ground zero

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There's more than one way to get a horse ready for the races after a layoff.

Texas-based trainer Les Nichols is riding one of his charges from the Alamo in San Antonio to ground zero in New York to raise funds for families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

J.J.'s Cowboy, a 9-year-old claimer who has not raced since August 2000, is one of several horses Nichols will ride during his trip, a three-month, 2,000-mile undertaking that should land him in New York by the end of January.

"I'm going to look around for a race for J.J. when I get there," said Nichols, who was in Waco, Texas, on Wednesday. "Something going five or six furlongs. He'll be in racing shape by then." The trainer, who has operated a small public stable in Texas since the late 1980's, added that he plans to work J.J.'s Cowboy at different tracks along the way to New York.

The journey, however, has little to do with a horse making a comeback. It is about helping a country make a comeback.

Nichols was moved to help his fellow Americans after he watched a live broadcast of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. He has dedicated proceeds from his trip to the 9-1-1 fund for firemen, as well as the widows and children fund set up by the New York Policemen's Benevolent Association.

Funds are being raised through the sale of sponsorships - some are paying $1 a mile toward the charities. The trainer also is raffling a custom-made saddle that features the Alamo and Twin Towers. Firemen across the country are helping him sell 200,000 tickets, if all are sold at a cost of $5 each, $1 million will be raised.

"I wanted to do something," said Nichols, who could not pass a physical to join the service as a young man because he lost an eye in an accident as a child. "I've lived on this earth for 41 years for free, enjoying my freedom. I want to do one good thing in my life."

It will be the accomplishment of a lifetime if Nichols makes it to New York. Armed with a proclamation from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he is riding service roads to his destination.

"A horse walks four miles an hour, and I ride four to five hours a day, from 10 a.m., to 4 p.m., with a break," said Nichols, who intends to stop at Lone Star Park near Dallas before that meet ends Dec. 1. "So, I cover 16 to 22 miles a day."

The trip will be made more difficult with winter weather approaching. "I know it's going to be cold. But our boys over in Afghanistan will be riding their horses in freezing snow and fighting at the same time. If they can do it over there, I can ride my pony over here."

J.J.'s Cowboy will be the horse Nichols will ride into ground zero with a mounted police escort. When he arrives, he plans to draw for the saddle. And, after J.J.'s Cowboy gets a race in, Nichols will return to Texas, where he has several young horses in training. His exploits can be followed at www.americanposse.org.