04/10/2007 12:00AM

Back in the game, Zimmerman hits Texas

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Ramsey Zimmerman started riding horses in Thoroughbred races at age 16. But by his reckoning, his real career as a jockey began much more recently than that.

Zimmerman, now 25, went down a path unfortunately trod by many young riders: positive drug tests, unprofessional behavior, and general chaos that prevented real talent from being expressed out on the track. Zimmerman said he has been suspended four times for positive drug tests, and his stumbles led to something like a period of exile, riding at small-scale Fairmount Park. But Zimmerman, reached by phone this week while visiting his 2-year-old son in Florida, also said he believes he pretty much is a changed man.

"When I first started riding, it wasn't like a job or career, it was just something I liked doing," Zimmerman said. "I didn't really know how to act in a professional situation. I never really knew what I wanted with my life. I wasted a lot of time, but now all I want to do is work, and all I want to do is win races."

Zimmerman has been fulfilling both of those goals for the better part of a year, and now he is broadening his horizons, with plans to spend a season at Lone Star Park. Zimmerman, the son of Chicago trainer Mary Zimmerman, grew up in Illinois and generally stuck to racing in that state until this past winter, when he shifted his tack from Hawthorne to Fair Grounds in mid-meet, and had an excellent run in New Orleans. Even with his late start, Zimmerman wound up eighth in the Fair Grounds jockey standings with 41 wins and more than $1.3 million in purses. He also won his first graded stakes - the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup aboard Cloudy's Knight - since the 1999 Hawthorne Derby, and made inroads into high-profile barns. The prospect of riding for Lone Star heavyweights Bret Calhoun and Cody Autrey, and perhaps to a lesser extent Steve Asmussen, spurred Zimmerman to give Texas a whirl.

"I love Chicago, but this is a good opportunity," said Zimmerman, who went to Lone Star to breeze horses late last month while serving a suspension for a riding infraction from the last week of the Fair Grounds meet. "I've been getting on a lot [of horses] for Bret and Cody. I haven't worked any for Steve yet, but he was putting me on some winners at Fair Grounds. I think I have a chance to have a big meet."

Zimmerman, who will be represented by agent Scott Hare, said he gets to the track as early as possible each morning to network with horsemen and exercise their stock - a major change from his wayward days.

"Right now, I can't wait to get started racing," he said. "The last two weeks, I haven't really known what to do with myself."

Lara holding his own

With Cole Norman currently out of racing and marking time at home in Louisiana, the Cole Norman stable remains in the hands of Jorge Lara, who was Norman's main assistant until this part winter, when a vehicle Norman was driving near Hot Springs, Ark., was involved in a head-on collision that produced a fatality.

But Lara, thrust into the top job, has more than held his own, winning with 21 of 89 starters to rank second in the trainer standings at Oaklawn Park. And while Norman's prominence at Lone Star declined last season, when the stable had its slowest Lone Star spring meet since 1999, Lara said he basically is shifting the Oaklawn operation to Lone Star this year, and plans to have a major presence throughout this meet.

"We're going to try to see if we can do some good over there," Lara said.

Lara plans to have 40 horses at Lone Star, and unlike last year, the string he trains at Louisiana Downs will be made up mainly of 2-year-olds. There will be some of those for Lone Star, too, with Lara expecting as many as 35 2-year-olds in by the end of May. Lara also plans to be active in the claiming business at Lone Star, and said his brother and assistant, Oscar Lara, would be in town for opening week to scout prospective claims. Jan Haynes, a Dallas-based owner, has been claiming with increasing regularity, and now has some 20 claimers racing at Oaklawn, Lara said.

"This is nothing I planned on when I came to work with Cole," Lara said. "But the owners are giving me a shot, and I'm happy, so I'm just taking advantage."

* Lone Star has created a Hall of Fame to coincide with its 10th year of operations, and will induct 14 members in a ceremony scheduled for April 21. The group of inductees includes past and current trainers, jockeys, and horsemen - and even Charles England, the mayor of Grand Prairie, the city in which Lone Star is located.