01/12/2002 1:00AM

Late starter getting ahead

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Jockey Tommy Pompell didn't ride his first race until he was 23. In Thoroughbred racing, a world where apprentice riders often start their riding careers before they attend their first prom, Pompell is clearly a late-bloomer.

But late-bloomer or not, he is one of the interesting stories of this meeting, as he rode another winner here Friday to bring his total for the young Tampa Bay Downs meet to seven, putting him in the top 10 in the rider standings.

Pompell, who began working as a hotwalker and then as a groom for veteran trainer Eddie Essenpreis at Fairmount, didn't decide right off the bat that he wanted to ride. It was after watching riders at work and in the mornings that he approached Essenpreis about getting on a horse.

"I went to Mr. Essenpreis and asked him if he would teach me to ride," Pompell, "He told me we were going to take our time, do it the right way and not rush into anything, which was fine with me. If I was going to do it I wanted to do it the right way. He took his time with me. The riders at Fairmount were a big help, and of course it didn't hurt to be able to watch Davie Gall ride night in and night out."

Gall, winner of more than 6,000 races, quietly put on a show many nights at Fairmount, and the young apprentice Pompell had a front-row seat.

"He was amazing," Pompell said, shaking his head, "He would take horses that had been showing nothing but speed, take them back to last and win. Then, the next race, he would take some horse that had been trailing, put him on the lead, and win with him. And he would give the little guy a chance, ride for the small outfits when he could, which I respected. He was something."

Pompell's winner on Friday was Maxine Rice's Silver Trinket, a promising 3-year-old filly trained by Don Rice. It was the opportunity to ride for the Rice stable, which has won the Tampa training title five times, that played a big part in Pompell's coming to Tampa this winter.

Paula Bacon has been Rice's regular rider here for the past few seasons, and she and Pompell originally were supposed to share riding duties for the stable. But back problems have sidelined Bacon for the time being. Pompell's winner Friday, and another winner that Juan Umana rode in the third race Friday, were horses that Bacon was originally scheduled to ride.

"I've really enjoyed it so far," Pompell said, "and it's so nice to spend the winter somewhere warm. Hopefully, I'll continue to do well. My agent, John Griffith, has been working hard and things are coming around."