12/28/2002 12:00AM

Poet, author, and leading trainer


OLDSMAR, Fla. - His name is Clarence Zehnder, most folks call him Pete, and while a lot of people around the track have led colorful lives, you would have to go some to top his life story.

Zehnder has been an author, a poet, and a bar owner, and right now he's Tampa's leading trainer.

"I've done a little bit of everything. from hustling pool to writing books," said Zehnder, 59, a native of Boone County, Ky., who first came to the racetrack at old Latonia, which is now Turfway Park. "I trained for 23 years, gave it up for 15, and now I'm back and having a ball."

By his own admission, Zehnder has never had a really good horse.

"I guess you could say I was a bit of a gambling trainer back in the old days, tried to cash a bet now and then, but never raised a lot of hell in the standings," he said. "I also hustled a jock's book for a while, but never really got lucky at that, either."

In 1985, Zehnder tired of training and left the track to travel the country playing pool and poker. Along the way, Zehnder said, he found time to write a book, and he had a poem about horses published in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Then 1 1/2 years ago he hooked up with former jockey and long-time friend Jim Nicholson to open a bar in Clearwater, Fla., named, appropriately enough, The Finish Line.

"We were doing all right, but we knew we weren't cut out to be bar owners," Zehnder said, "One day Jimmy called me up and said, 'Why don't we just go get some horses and go to racing again.' He told me to go out and find a truck that could pull a trailer. I bought one the next day and headed out, and we claimed 12 horses in the next seven weeks."

Zehnder has turned more than a few heads since this meet opened, having won 4 races from 7 starters through Friday. Zehnder said his success has come from placing horses in the right spots and having good barn help.

So for now, Zehnder is content to saddle winners, quote poetry, and enjoy life.

"I've been a lot of places and done a lot of things, but there's still nothing like a racehorse and the racetrack," he said.