06/19/2003 12:00AM

Norman makes Kentucky bow


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Cole Norman was a mere kid when he visited Churchill Downs for the first time. His late father, Gene Norman, saddled Explosive Wagon to a 15th-place finish in the 1983 Kentucky Derby, providing his son with his only indelible memory of Churchill.

"I did come back one more time, in about 1987," said Norman, "but it wasn't for much of anything."

Now all grown up at 34, Norman has developed into one of the most successful trainers in Thoroughbred racing, having run away with training titles at Oaklawn Park, Lone Star Park, and Louisiana Downs in recent years. He has become such a dominant force in the same region where his father once worked that people frequently say that he and Steve Asmussen, who also runs a juggernaut stable in the region, are ruining the game for everyone else.

Yet while Asmussen's operation is so large that he typically has strings of horses in other parts of the country - including Kentucky for most of the year - Norman tends to stay closer to home.

"I've never run a horse at any track in Kentucky," Norman said Thursday from Lone Star in Texas.

That will change Saturday when Beau's Town, a winner in nine of 12 career starts for Norman and owners David Hulkewicz and Coast to Coast Racing, goes off as the 123-pound highweight and probable favorite in the $100,000 Aristides Handicap at Churchill.

Beau's Town, a 5-year-old gelding, is 3 for 3 this year, all of the wins in stakes. The most recent came in the Grade 3 Count Fleet at Oaklawn on April 10, meaning more than 10 weeks will have passed since his last race.

"We took him to Louisiana Downs, gave him a little breather, and didn't do much with him for maybe a month," said Norman. "In the last two weeks he's really come around. He's doing some kind of perfect. I really like our chances."

Norman said his long-term goal for Beau's Town is the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita.

"The next few races are going to tell us a lot about that," he said. "After Saturday, we're looking at the $500,000 race at Calder [the Smile Sprint Handicap on July 12]."

If Norman's first Churchill starter is to be a winner, he will have to enjoy the experience from afar. Beau's Town was accompanied by assistant Tim Ice to Churchill, where the horse has been stabled in Lynn Whiting's barn since early this week. Ice will saddle the gelding for the Aristides, leaving Norman to watch on television at Lone Star. "We'll be cheering like crazy," he said.

McKee takes off mounts Thursday

John McKee took off all mounts Thursday after retaining soreness and stiffness in his neck following an incident at the starting gate the previous afternoon. "I didn't think I could perform at 110 percent, but I'm definitely going to be back [Friday]," McKee said.

McKee, 21, was injured when his scheduled mount, Tricky Storm, threw him out of the gate just before a field of 10 turf sprinters was set to run in the seventh race. Ironically, Tricky Storm, a 17-1 shot, proceeded to easily win that $44,000 race under substitute jockey Sidney Lejeune Jr. McKee also missed out on at least one winning mount Thursday, when David's Best Bet, ridden by Jose Martinez Jr., won the first race at a $65.80 mutuel.

The incident involving McKee was the main reason the start of the seventh race Wednesday was delayed by an agonizing 24 minutes. Logistics involving the track ambulance and other factors contributed to the delay.

"After such a long delay, sometimes you have to start thinking about whether or not to cancel," said Bernie Hettel, chief steward at Churchill. "Horses get out of what I call their 'anticipatory mode,' and fans have good reason to want to change or cancel their bets. If any trainer had called wanting to scratch, I would have let them."

Before McKee was injured, Danny Coa declined to ride Bert's Nicky as the field approached the gate for the first time. Some six to eight minutes later, after Rafael Bejarano had climbed aboard as a substitute, all but one horse had been loaded in the gate when Tricky Storm suddenly threw McKee, leading to the even longer delay.

* Overlooked in all the hubbub was that Pat Daly, a former assistant to Ken McPeek, saddled Tricky Storm for his first training victory in about 10 years. Daly, a 40-year-old Louisville native, had his own stable for several years before going into other work. He then returned to the racetrack as a stablehand and assistant in the mid-1990's before setting up his own public stable this spring at Keeneland.

Ipi Tombe breezes before U.S. debut

Ipi Tombe, the international superstar whose first U.S. start could come as early as next weekend, breezed five furlongs Thursday at Churchill with Pat Day aboard. Even with the "dogs" far out onto the turf course, the 5-year-old Zimbabwe-bred mare was timed in 1:00.60 over "ground that still has some cut to it," said Day.

"She's got another gear when you set her down," said Day. "She really accelerates, like 'right now!' She'll rock you back in your seat."

Day will have the mount regardless of where Ipi Tombe runs. Trainer Elliott Walden continues to play that close to the vest, saying the $150,000 Locust Grove Handicap here next Saturday is one possibility, along with races at Belmont Park or Colonial Downs.

Fields pardoned in campaign case

Lon Fields Sr., who has served on the Kentucky Racing Commission since being appointed by Gov. Paul Patton in 1996, was one of four men pardoned Wednesday by Patton for their roles in a highly controversial campaign-finance case that was scheduled for trial soon.

Fields, whose tenure on the commission has continued uninterrupted, was president of the local Teamsters union in Louisville at the time of the gubernatorial election in 1995, when the alleged crimes took place. Fields's connection with racing was as an owner of a few horses trained by Marcia Lee Butler, who has since retired.

One of the other officials pardoned by Patton was Robert Winstead, secretary-treasurer of the same union that Fields served as president. He is not the Robert D. Winstead who trains a small stable at Ellis Park.

* Churchill's third and final bobblehead giveaway of Triple Crown winners is set for Saturday, when Secretariat dolls will be given away with the first 7,500 paid admissions. The two previous giveaways - Affirmed on May 31, and Seattle Slew on June 8 - ran out in under an hour.