10/28/2004 12:00AM

Ramsey works way to the top

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NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. - Ken Ramsey would like to have you think he just fell off the turnip truck. With his aw-shucks grin and his country-boy act, Ramsey is the antithesis of the so-called modern-day sophisticate whose self-worth is directly linked to living up to whatever image is currently in vogue.

But don't be fooled. This is one smart man. Suggest to Ramsey that he has been lucky to bring three starters to the 21st Breeders' Cup in Texas, and he might go along with that notion - at least at first. But spend three hours with him and his wife of 46 years, Sarah (whom he calls Cathern), on their sprawling horse farm on the southern outskirts of Lexington, and it does not take long to get the idea that Ramsey's many successes in life are the result of nothing more than hard work, shrewd decision-making, and old-school perseverance.

"Ken might be the most competitive man in the world," said Sarah Ramsey. "Whatever it is he gets into, he wants to be the best. Doesn't matter what it is, he has to succeed."

Ken Ramsey grew up in the poor coal-mining town of Artemus in southeastern Kentucky. Population then was about 500, just as it is today.

"We've still got family there," he said. "Hasn't changed much."

Ramsey, 68, prepared for a recent interview by filling maybe a dozen legal-pad pages with handwritten notes about his life history, his philosophies, his horses, and other details.

"I still write longhand on legal pad," he said. "I'm still not much on the computer."

He attended, almost by accident, his first Kentucky Derby in 1953, the year after he graduated high school as valedictorian. On the advice of the man who oh-by-the-way asked him to accompany him on the trip from Artemus to Louisville, he bet $2 to win on Native Dancer, the favorite, who incurred his only career loss that day when he was upset by Dark Star.

From then on, Ramsey was enamored with horse racing, although it took him nearly 20 years to buy his first horse. His first purchase was a beat-up old gelding named Red Redeemer, who never made it back to the races after Ramsey claimed him for $1,500 at the old Miles Park in Louisville in the early 1970's. But things would get better- and how.

Through early adulthood, Ramsey "really knuckled down," as he likes to say, to make it through college, the Naval Reserves, raising four kids, and a series of jobs highlighted by a successful foray into real estate in Lexington, including one job in which he was supposed to negotiate a union grievance with the late Jimmy Hoffa but never did.

"I did shake his hand twice," said Ramsey with a grin. "Going into the room where we were supposed to meet, and coming out."

With that foundation laid, Ramsey began to increase his investments in racing and breeding stock in the 1980's, and even more in the 1990's. Today, the Ramsey's are the owners of: roughly 275 horses, including 61 active runners spread among several trainers, led by Dale Romans; a farm, known simply as Ramsey Farm, of more than 1,200 acres; numerous profitable businesses throughout the United States and beyond, most notably in cell-phone marketing rights; and all sorts of records as horse owners, including the last nine meet titles (won or shared) at Churchill Downs.

But what has recently thrust the Ramseys into the national sports spotlight is the uncanny run of fortune that has taken them to Texas this week. Their wildest dreams are about to come true Saturday, when their three horses - all legitimate contenders - will run in the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park near Dallas. Carrying the white-and-red Ramsey silks will be Nothing to Lose in the Mile, Kitten's Joy in the Turf, and Roses in May in the Classic.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Ken Ramsey said. "It'll probably never happen to us again, at least not like this. How could it? We really are living a dream right now."

What makes the Ramseys most proud is that two of their BC horses, Nothing to Lose and Kitten's Joy, were bred and raised on their farm. An extensive tour of the Ramsey farm, including the cozy house that Ken and Sarah have filled with racing memorabilia, reveals the kind of rich detail that most Kentucky farms with 200-plus years of human history might typically reveal. The farm has a proud heritage. Among other footnotes, Greyhound, the great Standardbred, was raised on the land. Its main function for the last five or six years has been to raise Thoroughbreds with mostly modest pedigrees.

"Just your basic working farm, nothing fancy," said Ramsey.

There are no big secrets to what has gotten Ken Ramsey to this enviable point in his life. As he talks about the many twists and turns that have brought him to the brink of Breeders' Cup glory, he frequently throws in some philosophy, a word to the wise, a piece of advice that tells you he has seen and done enough in his life to know for sure.

"I've always aspired to succeed," he said. "I just don't like to fail. I hate it."

Granted, hard work and foresight and an aversion to failure often pave the way to success. But Ramsey also knows that luck is a necessary ingredient, especially in the fickle game known as horse racing.

"Can you imagine?" said Ramsey. "All the years we've put in, all the horses we've had, and for all of it to come together like it has this year. Of course there's a lot of luck involved, and we're extremely thankful that this is our time. For Cathern and I to get to enjoy this Breeders' Cup experience with each other and our family and friends, and for all the many people who have helped us get to this point, I just can't say enough wonderful things."

Ramsey, with his wife at his side, has had an incredibly busy Breeders' Cup week in Texas, attending most every function and party available. Indeed, to maximize his time in the racing spotlight, he is working feverishly - just as he always has.