08/14/2001 11:00PM

M. Ramirez, afternoon rider


DEL MAR, Calif. - Marco Ramirez entered the Del Mar walking ring last Monday afternoon wearing a set of the world's most famous silks and sucking on the remains of a frozen fruit bar. He did not look like a man who was about to take his life in his hands.

Over the past two months, Ramirez had shed some 20 pounds for this moment, and now he was about to ride a 3-year-old son of Mr. Prospector, named Civilisation, in a one-mile maiden race on the Del Mar turf.

Civilisation had never started. Ramirez had not ridden competitively for nearly two years, since the Hawthorne meet of 1999.

For a sensible man, riding Civilisation was no way to make a comeback. The colt was notorious for his morning antics. As Ramirez approached, Civilisation pawed at the ground and hollered, arching his thick neck hard against the lip chain. A sensible man would have turned tail and run.

It was not as if Ramirez had no options. Handsome, articulate, and ambitious, the 29-year-old native of Mexico City has at one time or another pictured himself as a pilot, an architect, or a graphic artist. But from the time he saw a photo of his brother on a racehorse, he knew had to ride.

Ramirez rode at Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, until it closed in 1992, then caught on with the California stable of Bobby Frankel as an exercise rider. When done properly, the job requires the combined skills of both jockey and trainer. Ramirez found he had the knack. Among the first Frankel horses he handled was Toussaud, whose brilliance was exceeded only by her unpredictability.

There have been many others, including Happyanunoit, the accomplished New Zealand mare, and Skimming, who will defend his Pacific Classic title on Sunday at Del Mar. A few hours before his mount on Civilisation, Ramirez put the finishing touches on Skimming's preparation with a six-furlong breeze.

Skimming displayed his gratitude by trying to eat Marco's thumb.

"Bobby told me exactly what he wanted," Ramirez said. Frankel conveyed instructions by phone from Saratoga. 'You're going 13, 13 and change. No faster, no slower.' I don't think I can say what else he said, but I told him, 'Bobby, don't worry. That's what you'll get."

Using the watch on his wrist, Ramirez clocked Skimming in 1:13. Up in the viewing stand on the backstretch, assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio's watch read 1:13.20. The official clockers gave him 1:12.80. There would be no complaints from the boss.

Even so, after nearly 10 years in Frankel's employ, Ramirez knows how to let Bobby's rough side slide.

"Some people take what he says too seriously," Ramirez said. "We all have really bad moments. When he does, what I try to do is open my ears wide. Then it goes in one and out the other."

By now, Ramirez has Skimming down to a fine art. "You've got to keep a lot of attention on his pace," Ramirez said. "He seems to be going along relaxed and easy, but he's not. If you're not careful, he can go way too fast.

"I galloped him last year, before we got to Del Mar," Ramirez went on.

"He's changed a lot, and for the better. It's very rare, for a horse to mature so much mentally. Last year he was very strong galloping. This year he relaxes. He doesn't pull you. But when he breezes, he's a different horse."

The same praise cannot be lavished upon Civilisation, whose dam is none other than Toussaud. Clearly, the worst sins of the mother have been visited upon the son. He would prop, whirl, and refuse to go forward. And those were his good days.

Frankel finally turned to Pat Parelli, whose school of natural horsemanship has been helping problem horses for years. Watching the work of instructor Larry Stewart, Ramirez was amazed.

"Forty-five minutes after he started, you could see a difference in the horse," Ramirez said. In the months that followed, Frankel and Ascanio gave Ramirez the latitude to apply what Stewart had instilled. It made sense, then, that Frankel would tap Ramirez to ride Civilisation when the colt finally made it to the races.

On Monday, it happened. Stripped down to his riding weight of 113, his long, dark ponytail dangling from the back of his helmet, and adorned in the colors of Juddmonte Farm, Ramirez took Civilisation to the post. Ascanio, watching from the finish line, held his breath.

"Anything can happen," he whispered. Civilisation broke a little slowly but then got quickly into gear. Ramirez had his feet forward and his hands in his lap as they raced past the stands the first time. On the backstretch the colt relaxed, then in the stretch he came storming up the inside to finish fifth. By the time the leaders pulled up on the turn, Civilisation and Ramirez were in front.

"Bobby wanted to me to get him behind horses, wait as long as I could, and then let him finish strong," Ramirez said. "I hope he saw the race. I hope he was happy with it, because I'm really excited."

Ramirez also hopes he can ride Civilisation again. And if he doesn't, he won't let it get him down. He'll still be getting on the best horses in town. "It's a great job with Bobby, but my riding spirit hasn't died," Ramirez said. "My inner child just doesn't want to leave me alone yet."