05/31/2003 12:00AM

A different world this year

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ALTOONA, Iowa - What a difference a year has made for trainer Paul Pearson.

In the summer of 2002 Pearson struggled with a barn filled with sick horses as well as with his own personal problems. This year, Pearson, who is the private trainer for Jim and Sandra Rasmussen's River Ridge Ranch, has saddled 11 winners, including Take Me Up, who won the John Wayne Stakes here at Prairie Meadows on May 17.

Through Friday, Pearson had started 42 horses at the meet and had a winning percentage of 26. He is currently fifth in the standings despite starting fewer runners than any other trainer in the top 10.

Pearson took over the River Ridge Ranch horses in 2001 and enjoyed a successful season, saddling 25 percent winners. He wintered at Retama Park before returning to Iowa in 2002. After arriving here a large number of his runners got sick, and it took many of them months to recover.

"We never figured out exactly what it was, but we fought the sickness all summer long," said Pearson, who added that two of his runners last summer were diagnosed with pleurisy.

Pearson's personal troubles came to a head in August when he was the driver in a one-car alcohol-related accident. Pearson was not seriously injured, but the accident did have a lasting effect on him.

"It was a wake-up call. The doctors told me if I kept doing the things I was doing I wouldn't be around much longer," said Pearson, a 44-year-old native of Rhode Island.

Rumors that Pearson would be dismissed by River Ridge were rampant on the backstretch following the accident, but Pearson said he was never worried. "When I woke up at the hospital after the accident, Sandra was at my bedside. The Rasmussens are great people, and they have always supported me."

Not knowing exactly what caused his horses to get sick last year Pearson decided to make a change and spent this past winter at Sam Houston. The plan worked, as his horses returned to Iowa in good health after winning 11 races in Texas.

Pearson's health has also improved this year. "I'm behaving myself now and I feel like a million bucks," he said.

Pearson became interested in racing when his father, a police officer, directed traffic at the now-defunct Narragansett Park in his home state. His father worked before and after the card and would take Paul inside to watch the races in between.

Pearson decided to build a career in horse racing for himself and worked for trainer Ray Stifano for over 15 years in Florida and Indiana before leaving to become the private trainer for owner John Blanchett. Two years later Pearson took the River Ridge Ranch job.

Jim Rasmussen has battled cancer for the past several years and recently resigned as chairman of the board of the Racing Association of Central Iowa, which runs Prairie Meadows. Pearson said the events of the past year have made him more dedicated than ever to do well for the Rasmussens.

With Take Me Up, a multiple stakes winner; Orphan Lover, a two-time allowance winner already at the meeting; and promising 2-year-olds Gilded Honor and My Easy Charm among the 28 River Ridge Ranch horses currently in training, it seems Pearson's dedication is paying off.