02/20/2009 12:00AM

Norman faces period of uncertainty


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Since his release in January after a nine-month stretch in an Arkansas state prison, Cole Norman has been getting reacquainted with his family. Once one of the nation's leading trainers, he wants to resume his career eventually, and his first step toward a return to the racing industry will come next month, when Norman plans to attend an auction at Lone Star Park to scout horses for clients. But the timetable for his resuming training on the Arkansas-Louisiana-Texas circuit is unknown, complicated by the felony conviction stemming from a deadly traffic accident that sent him to prison in April 2008.

"I can't wait to get back to training, I love it, but I have to wait until they give me the okay to do it," Norman said of racing commission officials. "From what I've been told, it might be 2011, when I get off of parole. There is a chance it could be sooner. I don't know. I learned in prison to be patient, to sit tight. It's going to come around. All you can do is wait. That's what I do, I train horses, and hopefully one day I'll be able to do it again."

Norman was at the height of his career in February 2007 when a routine trip from his home in Louisiana back to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., changed the direction of his life dramatically. He was just minutes from his condo in Hot Springs when he became involved in a traffic accident that left 86-year-old Virginia Heath dead. Norman was found to have painkillers, for which he had prescriptions, in his system, and he pleaded guilty to negligent homicide during a trial last April. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released on Jan. 28 and is scheduled to remain under parole supervision through September 2011.

When Norman might be relicensed could vary from state to state, but Arkansas commission officials said Friday that in a typical case in their state, someone would come before the commission to seek a license upon completion of probation or parole.

In his first interview since his release, Norman, 40, said this week that he has spent the past two years overcoming an addiction to the painkillers he was first prescribed back in December 2005, when he broke his neck in an all-terrain vehicle accident. A big part of the healing process happened for him in prison, where he broke horses for the state and became a counselor to other prisoners after completing a substance-abuse program himself.

"I wanted to give 110 percent while I was there, to try to give back," he said Thursday from his home in Haughton, La. "I broke the law, so I was there to pay the price. That's how I looked at it. I took an innocent life. I will deal with that the rest of my life. I think about it every day, and I wish there was some way I could bring Ms. Heath back."

Horses brought Norman success beyond even his own expectations. In just 12 years of training, he collected 16 titles among Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas to establish himself as one of the winningest horsemen in North America. His stable grew from five head to 180, and he has compiled 1,885 career wins and more than $30 million in purse earnings. Horses were there for him again in prison, when one of his first jobs was to teach 2- and 3-year-olds to accept a Western saddle in preparation for their use by officers at all of the state's prisons.

"The only negative was having to break the horses without a halter or bridle," Norman said. "A lot of them didn't even know how to lead. Imagine trying to put a saddle on some of those wild suckers. I got bucked off five times the first day. I figured I deserved it."

Norman later entered a substance-abuse program, and upon completion stayed on as a counselor.

"People think, 'Cole a counselor? That's a joke,' " he said. "That's kind of what I thought. I said, 'Are you sure you want me to do that?' But I noticed a lot of people listening to me when I would talk about my situation, and it made me feel good. I wanted to use every minute there wisely, and give back."

Norman's completion of the program also helped the parole process move along more quickly than expected. Other key factors were that Heath's family did not oppose his parole, and that he received 67 letters of support, many from owners, trainers, jockeys, agents, and racing officials.

"I regret that I let my family down, as well as the racing industry," Norman said. "Right now, I have to take one day at a time. I'd love to train tomorrow, but it might be best to take baby steps."

Norman said he is considering offers to break young horses for the track, which would not require state licensing. But for now, he is enjoying time with Tamara, his wife of 17 years, and his children, Cheyenne, 10, and Presley, 3.

"Here lately I've been taking my daughter to school, taking her to cheerleading practice, taking her to dance," he said. "I've been playing with Presley and spending time with Tamara. I can't put into words what a blessing it is to be home with them. God got me through this. I asked him every day to keep me safe and get me home, and he did that."