09/30/2003 11:00PM

Norman tests uncharted waters

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In recent years, Cole Norman has overwhelmed the competition in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, but seldom has his influence gone beyond that limited sphere. So when Norman makes his first trip as a licensed trainer to Keeneland this weekend, more than a few people will be interested to see how he fares.

Norman will saddle three horses during the first two days of the Keeneland fall meet: Beau's Town, the favorite in the Phoenix Breeders' Cup on Friday; Mass Media, quite possibly the favorite for the Breeders' Futurity on Saturday; and South Africa, the probable favorite in the fifth race Saturday, a first-level allowance for 2-year-olds.

Norman, 34, was scheduled to arrive here Thursday, two days after his three horses were flown here from Louisiana Downs. "The last time I was at Keeneland was in 1986 with my dad," said Norman, whose father, trainer Gene Norman, died nearly nine years ago. "I'm coming back with some horses that can really run. We're looking for a big weekend."

Norman has never run a horse in the Breeders' Cup, but that figures to change later this month. Beau's Town, a winner in 10 of 14 career races, was good enough to win the Grade 2 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar in his most recent start, and Mass Media has won his first two starts by a combined 33 lengths. Going into the weekend, Beau's Town is widely regarded as a major contender for the BC Sprint, while a winning effort in the Breeders' Futurity could make Mass Media one of the top few choices for the BC Juvenile.

Norman seriously considered running Beau's Town in the Breeders' Cup with the July 26 Crosby Cap as his last race, but because the Phoenix "looked like such a good spot with a good purse and the horse was doing so good, we thought, heck, we're already sending the other horse [Mass Media], let's just send them both," said Norman. "Then we threw in South Africa for that allowance race after we took a look at the condition book."

Beau's Town, a distinctive-looking chestnut owned by Coast to Coast Racing and David Hulkewicz, has lost just once in five starts this year, and that was by a head in the June 21 Aristides Handicap at Churchill Downs. Norman is thrilled with how the 5-year-old Beau's Town has trained in recent weeks.

"He's really been wanting to do something, so we thought, 'Let's go ahead and get it out of him,' " he said.

As for Mass Media, a Touch Gold colt owned by Mary and Gary West, Norman is quick to acknowledge that "he hasn't faced those kind yet, but he sure deserves a chance. He broke his maiden real easy, and then he won that allowance race by 22 lengths. He's not a big horse, but he's not all that small, either, and he's got the pedigree to run a mile and a half."

Oris "Benny" Glass, the longtime racing manager for the Wests, said that although Mass Media "may not have beaten much in those two races at Louisiana Downs, we've never been this excited after just a one-other-than. We have no idea if he can match strides with the top boys, but we had to go somewhere to find out - and there's no better place to go than Keeneland."

Several years ago, Glass began sending horses to Norman after a nephew who worked as a stablehand for Norman "assured me there wasn't a harder-working trainer in the business," said Glass. "He was right. Cole is as honest and hard-working as they come. We think the world of him."

Since 1995, when Norman took out his first trainer's license, his stable has won more races, earned more money, and set personal records in each passing year. Now, by taking part in major races at Keeneland this weekend, and with the Breeders' Cup just beyond the horizon, he seemingly is poised to reach a career pinnacle.

"This has really been a great year," he said. "A lot of times I have to pinch myself. I've been extremely fortunate, and it seems like my dad is still opening doors for me. We're coming up to Keeneland hopefully to watch these horses run big. It's really exciting, I'll tell you."