02/21/2004 12:00AM

Umana manages to keep even keel


OLDSMAR Fla. - Juan Umana's workday here Friday was a graphic example of how the highs and lows of racing can come and go in the blink of an eye.

Umana is a "steady Eddie" kind of guy, and he quietly goes about his business well enough to be among the leading riders at Tampa Bay Downs every year.

Umana got off to a good start in the fourth race Friday, as he stalked a pace duel aboard Gratefully for a half-mile, then swung outside and ran past the leaders to win by four lengths. Gratefully paid $5.40.

In the seventh, Umana and Stormy Brew ($6.60) had to charge from far back in a turf route and got up in the final strides, thanks to a well-judged ride. Umana then made it three wins on the day when he teamed up with Lucky Ferdinand ($6.80), who easily won an allowance route by more than three lengths.

With three more mounts on the card, Umana had a chance for an even bigger day. But then the racing gods intervened.

In the ninth race, he was aboard Where Are You in a main track sprint, when a rival came inward shortly after the start and Umana was forced to take up in tight quarters and fell back off the pace. Umana let his mount settle, then closed strongly on the outside to finish second, beaten just a neck.

In the 10th race, Umana was aboard Verbal Inspiration, the 3-2 favorite. It looked as though he was going to be a threat leaving the second turn, when Verbal Inspiration suddenly broke down. Umana did a good job holding his mount together long enough to let the field clear him. As Verbal Inspiration struggled to stay up, Umana leaped off but held the reins to prevent his stricken mount from running off and injuring herself further.

Talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

The riding triple gave Umana 29 winners for the meeting, which ranks him fifth in the standings

Racing lost big booster

To say that Chris Thomas - who died Thursday morning at age 55 after a long bout with cancer - left his mark on the Tampa community and the Florida racing scene would be a gross understatement.

Thomas went to work at WFLA, Channel 8, as a sportscaster in 1988 and continued at the station as its sports director until 2002. Known for his aggressive reporting, wry wit, and self-deprecating humor, Thomas was an unabashed supporter of Thoroughbred racing. He often led his T.V. sports segments with horse racing news while other stations ignored the sport almost entirely.

In 1989, Thomas was recognized nationally with an Eclipse Award for a television retrospective he did on Secretariat.

In recent years, Thomas moved from handicapper to horse owner and syndicate manager, starting first with C.T. Stable and then founding Alpha One Stables. One of his most successful purchases was Super Fuse, a winner of 5 of 19 starts and $255,778, whom he bought as a 2-year-old for $38,000.

I first met Thomas during Preakness week in 1989. Thomas was struggling in from the parking area with an equipment case, his left arm strapped to his chest. After helping him stow his gear, I asked what happened.

"I pulled my shoulder out grabbing this bleeping case off the luggage carousel at the airport," Thomas said. "Now I face a real quandary: how to effectively eat crabs and drink beer with only one good arm."

That was vintage Chris Thomas. His passions were simple and out there for all to see. High on that list was horse racing.