06/27/2001 11:00PM

Norman on the way to surpassing his father's deeds

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - Cole Norman still vividly recalls the first few months of 1995, when he inherited what remained of his late father's stable at Oaklawn Park.

He can't help but remember: Those memories are partly what have driven Norman to become one of the winningest trainers in North America today.

Gene Norman, a physically solid man and an undeniably solid horse trainer, died of a heart attack at age 67 on Nov. 9, 1994. His sons, Cody and Cole, had always been by his side, helping at the barn. When Cody decided to go into the construction business, it was Cole who took it upon himself to carry on the family legacy.

He had little to work with.

"Five horses," said Cole Norman. "Won four races the whole meet."

But as Norman, 32, returns to his home state for Saturday's start of the Louisiana Downs meet, he finds himself doing a whole lot better than six years ago.

His public stable consists of some 80 horses. He has been the leading trainer at Louisiana Downs for the last three years. He was North America's eighth-leading trainer in wins last year with 151. This year, with 93 wins and over $1.6 million in earnings (through Wednesday), he is on par to set personal records in both categories, which he has done every year.

Norman not only has exceeded what almost anyone could have predicted for him, but at his current rate he also has an excellent chance to surpass what his father accomplished. Gene Norman was widely recognized as a plain-spoken, old-school horseman. His 413 career wins at Louisiana Downs still rank ninth all-time.

After Gene Norman died, his son was on the spot.

"People didn't think I'd make it," said Norman. "You'd hear things, although they wouldn't say it to your face. But that doesn't matter now."

What does matter to Norman is that he maximizes the tremendous opportunities before him. Clearly, his work ethic, ingrained since childhood, is an integral part to his success. He grew up in Lafayette, La., working for his father at Evangeline Downs.

"This is the only job I've ever had," he said. "Cody and I worked for my dad forever. We got up in the morning, every morning. When my dad said wake up, you better do it, because if he had to come back it wasn't going to be pretty."

At the current Lone Star meet, where racing is conducted on weeknights, Norman often finds himself getting by with minimum sleep. But extraordinarily hard work is not uncommon on racetrack backstretches. What has allowed Norman to set himself apart is a combination of other factors: clients who permit him a free hand; a fearless streak that allows for daring placement of his horses; a foundation of horseman's skills learned from his father; excellent organizational skills; and raw determination.

Norman said that when he began training his own stable of horses in 1995, he told his high school sweetheart, and now his wife of nine years, Tamara, "If I don't make it, it won't be because I didn't put 110 percent into it."

With Lone Star closing soon and Louisiana Downs starting, Norman will glad to be home in Bossier City. He and Tamara are graduates of Bossier High. His mother, Reballa, lives in town, and so does Tamara's mother. The Normans recently bought a house in nearby Haughton. Norman's stable will be split between Louisiana Downs and a local training facility, Wraparound Downs.

For Norman, little could match winning the signature event at Louisiana Downs, the Grade 1 Super Derby. And with Royal Spy, a 3-year-old colt who most recently posted a 9 1/2-length victory in the USA Stakes at Lone Star, he appears to have his first realistic chance. Royal Spy, owned by Dr. K.K. Jayaraman, clearly is the top local candidate for the Sept. 23 Super Derby.

Among Norman's other clients are Gary and Mary West, Ken Murphy, Marc Lowrance, and Buddy Coleman. As often happens with trainers on a roll, Norman's phone has been ringing a lot these days - which provides quite a contrast to how things started for him.

"It was tough at first," he said. "But little by little, we got it going."

On Norman's shed row, dominated by orange stall webbings and tack boxes, most of the lettering on the equipment reads "CN." But a few read "GN," leftovers from his days when his father ruled. He smiles when a visitor notices the difference.

As a tribute to his father, he points to the sky from the winner's circle after every victory.

"I do this to win," he said. "Horse racing is all I've known my whole life. I'd do it for free if I could afford it."