01/28/2005 1:00AM

Journey carries Ramseys to the top

Ken and Sarah Ramsey accept one of their two Eclipse Awards for 2004 on Monday in Beverly Hills. Ramsey horses, which included turf champion Kitten's Joy and Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Roses in May, won 84 races and more than $5.8 million last year.

On a muddy day at the races, you might glimpse Ken Ramsey barefoot in the winner's circle, his suitpants rolled to mid-shin. The man does not miss his horses' win pictures, and rather than soil his shoes, he will remove them before grabbing a lead shank from a groom to guide his horse to a soggy photo. Last Monday in Beverly Hills, Ramsey did have on shoes - black to match his tux and tie - but the same breakneck enthusiasm welled up when he and his wife, Sarah, were announced as the Eclipse Award-winning owners for 2004. Ramsey thrust a fist into the air, nearly jumping from his chair. At another table, Mike Gill sat downcast. After finishing a distant second to Juddmonte Farms in the 2003 balloting, Gill, who easily led the nation's owners in wins and earnings last year, thought this might be his time. Instead, he was outpolled, 100-79, by the Ramseys. Neither man was born anywhere near the Thoroughbred racing establishment. Ramsey's life story flies right out of a Horatio Alger novel. He was born in the poor Kentucky mining town of Artemus, where his bright mind showed at school. Ramsey chugged through college and the Naval Reserves, and he soon had a firm grip on his bootstraps. An early foray into real estate made him wealthy; a later venture in the cellular telephone industry broke the bank.

Ramsey attended the 1953 Kentucky Derby and traces his racing love to that day. In the mid-1960's, he bought his first horse, a claimer he has described as "blind in one eye" and walking "with a three-legged limp."

Last year's models, many trained by Dale Romans and Bobby Frankel, were cut from a different cloth. All told, the Ramsey horses won 84 races and more than $5.8 million in purses during 2004. Three made it to the Breeders' Cup, but there Ramsey had one of his few disappointments in a remarkable season. Nothing to Lose, winner of the Grade 1 Shadwell Mile, finished up the track in the Breeders' Cup Mile while Roses in May was second in the Classic and Kitten's Joy was second as a strong favorite in the Turf. But Kitten's Joy was still named champion turf horse of 2004 by virtue of sparkling Grade 1 wins in the Secretariat and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. And in mid-summer, with the Ramsey runners in the midst of a tremendous surge, Roses in May captured the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga. Roses in May came by way of auction, but Kitten's Joy and Nothing to Lose were bred and raised on the Ramseys' farm outside Lexington, Ky. There are stallions, broodmares, lay-ups, and young horses at the farm; add in their racing stock, around 60 strong last year, and the Ramseys were into the Thoroughbred business to the tune of about 275 horses last season.

Ramsey roots mightily for each of them and has been known to back up his sympathies at the betting window.

"I just don't like to fail," he said last summer. "I hate it."

Ramsey's ultra-competitive nature landed him in hot water late last year, when he offered a rival trainer a payoff to scratch her horse from a race at Turfway Park. Ramsey badly wanted one of his horses to draw into the race from the also-eligible list. The horse is by the Ramseys' stallion Catienus, and Ramsey was pushing to make Catienus the 2004 leading first-crop sire by wins. Ramsey was fined $25,000 and suspended for a week, a dark moment in a glittering season.

Repentant and apologetic when Kitten's Joy was announced as turf champion, Ramsey had bounced back by the time he was handed the award for leading owner. And there is nothing surprising there; Ramsey has never stopped pushing forward.

Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey