02/28/2003 1:00AM

Lessons Learned in unusual places


NEW ORLEANS - He has spent quality time with cows, llamas, and Tennessee walking horses in rural Alabama, but on Sunday at Fair Grounds, Learned is in with Grade 2 stakes horses in the New Orleans Handicap.

Learned's whole life has happened off the beaten path, which is fitting, since this is one unusual horse. At over 17 hands, Learned is the tallest horse Bobby Barnett has ever trained. His stride goes on forever, yet Learned is light on his feet and won his career debut in a sprint race. Learned is as lean as he is tall, and a head-on view reveals a wafer-thin barrel beneath a huge head.

But can this horse run. A 5-year-old with only seven starts, Learned made his stakes debut Jan. 19 in the Whirlaway Handicap. Nearly 20 lengths behind with a half-mile remaining, he closed strongly through the stretch and missed catching Mineshaft by a nose.

"People were asking if he was tired, but heck, he only ran a quarter-mile," Barnett said.

For many reasons, it's surprising Learned is running at all.

"In all honesty, he probably never should have been given a chance," said part-owner John Kottkamp.

Kottkamp and Jim Haggard, best friends, own Learned in partnership. Haggard is a biochemistry professor at Samford University, while Kottkamp is in the retail jewelry business. But the racing bug bit Kottkamp in the mid-1970's and never let go. The friends went down in flames together when Birmingham Race Course shut its doors in 1995, and the 90 horses Haggard and his wife had at their farm outside Birmingham were scattered to the wind.

"We all went broke when Birmingham closed," said Kottkamp, who had managed the Haggards' farm.

Their Learned story starts with his dam, On the Skids, who sold at auction for $700 in 1990.

"She basically was a cripple," Kottkamp said. "But she had wonderful scope and I thought she'd be great for breeding those event horses."

Kottkamp bought her for dressage clients, who several years later called and said they were done breeding On the Skids. Did Kottkamp want her back?

"The company I'd worked for went bankrupt, and I had a severance package. I bought her in the fall of 1996," Kottkamp said.

When Kottkamp chose the stallion Discover as a mate for On the Skids, he hoped to impart durability. Besides that, Discover was cheap. Their mating produced Learned, who hit the ground in Kentucky in 1998 and promptly contracted a case of pneumonia that nearly killed him. After two weeks in a clinic, Learned came home to Montevallo, Ala.

There, as he got well, Learned and his dam took up residence in a pen set up inside a cow pasture.

"We moved him to another friend's place and turned him out with a couple of Tennessee walking horses," Kottkamp said, of the next step. When space was scarce, Learned lived in a pasture next to a pair of llamas. Kottcamp and a battalion of devoted locals raised Learned, who grew dynamically.

"He grew by leaps and bounds. He was 16 hands before he ever was broken," Kottkamp said.

"You always hope 'this is the one,' " Kottkamp said. "Jim, the first day he saw him running with the mare, said, 'Look at that reach and acceleration. It's incredible.' "

Arrangements were made during the fall of his yearling season for Learned to be broken at Lambholm Farm in Ocala, Fla.

"But nobody would come to pick him up," Kottkamp said. Three months later, "I borrowed a truck and trailer and drove him myself."

Learned was there a year and a half.

Junior Serna, the man who broke Learned at Lambholm Farm, had a hard time assessing Learned's talent since Learned seemed lame much of the time. He would drag a hind leg around, and his training stopped and started countless times as Serna tried to get him sound.

"You'd look at him, and you think, maybe he could be a little better looking," said Serna, who has broken several champions. "We castrated him, did some therapy and took our time. I told the owners, we might have to run for a claiming price, but there's a little something there."

The long stay on the farm drained Kottkamp's and Haggard's resources, and when Learned left for the stable of Barnett - whom Kottkamp had met at a clothing store in Louisville, Ky. - another wait ensued when Learned again failed to show ability.

"Bobby had him three months, and we were getting down to bare-knuckles time," Kottkamp said. "This may sound hokey, but the last couple years, I've gotten religious. One night, I prayed, please, just let this horse have some speed. The next morning, he worked [three furlongs] in 35 flat. From that day on, Bobby went from being afraid to run him to saying he was going to get the money."

Learned got the money when he made his debut in September of his 3-year-old season. He stumbled at the start of a six-furlong race at Turfway Park and trailed early, but swooped past the field on the turn and won by eight lengths.

Learned won his next two starts, but suffered a condylar fracture of an ankle last winter at Fair Grounds and spent most of last season on the sidelines. When he returned last fall, Learned lost his first two races but had excuses both times. He easily won a Churchill allowance race in his last start before the Diplomat Way. He has trained strongly in the six weeks since that race and comes into the New Orleans Handicap in peak condition.

A win would complete Kottkamp and Haggard's amazing story, but Kottkamp has grown so attached to Learned that his first concern lies elsewhere.

"All I hope when he runs is that he comes back okay," Kottkamp said, his voice breaking. "This horse is like a child to me. He's an unbelievable animal."