12/26/2005 12:00AM

Norman just grateful he can walk

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Cole Norman said Monday he received the most amazing Christmas gift of his life: the ability to walk.

Norman is out of the hospital and at home after undergoing three-hour surgery to repair serious damage to his spine incurred last week in an accident on his property. Norman said he was slowly driving his Honda Polaris Ranger - a type of ATV - early in the evening when the vehicle struck a rut on a hillside and overturned, landing on top of him.

"I just kind of felt numb everywhere," Norman recalled. "I remember trying to get out from under it, because I smelled gasoline everywhere."

The accident broke Norman's neck and required plates and screws to be inserted to stabilize his upper spine. Norman faces several months in a brace and an extensive rehabilitation period, and he is in pain right now. And still he feels thankful.

"I had a good Christmas gift from God to be able to walk," he said. "A lot of patients are wheeled out instead of walk out from the accident I had. I'm very lucky. It's an eye-opener, that's for sure."

When Norman can resume his regular work schedule has yet to be determined, but his massive operation, gearing up for the meet at Oaklawn Park, and in the midst of a solid Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs, remains fully functional, he said. His assistants, the brothers Jorge and Oscar Lara, are supervising day-to-day activity at the barn, and his wife, Tamara, the stable's bookkeeper, is helping oversee the business end of the operation.

"I can talk on the phone with my owners, and my owners have been awesome," Norman said. "They all said +Take your time coming back.' It will keep going. As long as I'm able to talk, read the condition book and the Form, it will keep going like a Mack truck."

Norman was watching at home Saturday when Corredor de Plata stamped himself as one of the sharpest 2-year-olds at the meet. An easy winner of his career debut Nov. 20, Corredor de Plata won a six-furlong entry-level allowance race by 1 1/2 lengths, beating 11 rivals and demonstrating an ability to relax off the pace.

"He has sure stepped up to what we thought he would be," Norman said. "He's improving every time we put him out there. That race was very impressive over the weekend."

While Norman said he believes Corredor de Plata will eventually stretch out to two turns, the colt is being pointed to the $50,000 Dixieland Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on opening weekend at Oaklawn.

Private Gift displays stakes potential

The underappreciated Shadow Cast has gone off to be a broodmare, but trainer Neil Howard might have a replacement.

Private Gift comfortably won the Truly Bound Handicap on Saturday, running perhaps the most complete race of her career while looking much like a horse who could emerge as a player next year in graded stakes races for fillies and mares.

Howard, in Colorado on a family visit, watched the race on a computer screen, but liked what he saw. "Shadow Cast, my heart lies with her, but this filly always has acted like she could be a decent filly," he said.

Howard said Private Gift, a daughter of Unbridled and the Grade 1-winning mare Secret Status, "has been a little bit of her own worst enemy."

"The fillies out of this mare can be hot-blooded," he said, "but she has started to settle down."

Moreover, Private Gift underwent a myectomy this past fall to repair a breathing problem, and has improved significantly since the procedure.

"We're thinking she has matured, and if the breathing was that much a problem, that was just adding fuel to the fire," said Howard.

Howard is based at Oaklawn this winter, and plans to run Private Gift back there.

"We will take it one step at a time, not get too far ahead of ourselves," he said. "We will look at the series of races at Oaklawn and keep our fingers crossed."

* Roman Chapa's big lead in the jockey standings has dwindled to just three. Heading into this meet's only five-day racing week, Chapa led Carlos Gonzalez, 27-24.