12/12/2002 1:00AM

A farm-bred, race-tested cash cow


Herman Taylor used to harvest several crops on his farm in central Louisiana. What he has raised on the farm now is much better, a cash crop named Walk in the Snow, who has earned barrels of money and a spot - for at least the moment - as Louisiana's best racehorse.

Raised and broken at Taylor's farm in Arnauldville, La., Walk in the Snow goes for his third straight win Saturday in the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic. A precocious sprinter, Walk in the Snow was among the best statebred 2-year-olds of 2001, but he came back from surgery this summer reborn as a route horse. Taylor has sent him long only four times, but in those four races Walk in the Snow finished second in the Grade 2 Super Derby before winning statebred stakes in his last two starts. His showdown last month at Delta Downs with Oak Hall, last year's Classic winner, was no contest: Walk in the Snow won by almost four lengths.

"He's enjoying running long even better than sprinting," Taylor said. "He feels good doing that. He comes back after the race and he's not a horse that's even blowing hard."

Taylor's wife, Ginger, owns Walk in the Snow. She also spends nearly every morning at Taylor's base at Delta Downs, working alongside the rest of the crew. With more than $324,000 in earnings, Walk in the Snow has been a boon to their business.

"We were down low for a while," Taylor said. "It's been a struggle to stay in business with the purses the way they've been. If somebody thinks it's easy, they're wrong. I told my wife, 'Here I've got a horse that's won $250,000 the last three months and I haven't taken a day off.' "

Taylor's stable moved to the racetrack two seasons ago, a major transition for the 54-year-old Taylor, who had spent his whole life on a family farm. "There are farm trainers and there are racetrack trainers," said Taylor. "There's only so much you can do with a horse on a farm. I figured moving was what I had to do. At the farm, the work never stops, but at the track there's more freedom to be with the horses."

The Taylors still grow their own hay, and raise and break horses they've bought at the farm. But the training track at the farm isn't used like before, when Taylor was sending horses straight from the farm to the races.

Taylor, who has trained professionally for about 14 years, grew up with bush-track horses and dabbled in the business even while making his living farming rice, soybeans, and crawfish. His horses used to train on a straightaway track laid out alongside a bean field.

"They'd gallop down the straight, turn around, come back and do it again," Taylor said.

Everything started to change two years ago when Taylor drove to the property of Mrs. Virginia Cobb of Reynolds, La., to go horse shopping. Taylor was there to buy a 2-year-old but didn't like the horse, and after some reckoning and some bargaining, he brought home three horses for the sum of $5,000. Among them was a weanling by In a Walk, out of Snow Starlet, by Snow Chief.

Farming requires patience, and Taylor seems to have carried the habits he learned as a farmer into training. He does not push his horses in their training, and rarely will you see a Taylor-trained horse posting fast works. Walk in the Snow, Taylor said, never showed blazing speed or marks of brilliance as an unraced horse. He lost his first race by nine lengths, finished second in his second start - and then started rolling. A maiden win was followed by a nine-length victory over open company, and offers started coming in.

Walk in the Snow was always for sale, but Taylor was determined to get a fair price. He was close to selling his horse once, but an examining veterinarian gave Walk in the Snow a failing grade and the purchase fell through. Fate was kind that day.

Walk in the Snow was second in the Champions Day Juvenile last year and soon needed surgery to repair a bone chip, but it has all worked out. He came back from the surgery sound, and Walk in the Snow has not missed a beat since returning to the races in May. Taylor said Ronald Ardoin, Walk in the Snow's rider for six races last season, had regularly told him the gelding would be a better horse around two turns, and jockey Kirk Leblanc, his regular rider now, got a similar feeling in a July 28 sprint race, his first race aboard Walk in the Snow.

"He felt like he wanted to go long when I rode him the first time," Leblanc said. "He relaxes, and he'll do anything I want him to do out there. If they go too fast he'll lay off them. If they go too slow, he can be on the lead."

However he runs Saturday, the Taylors are glad they're along for the ride.