02/08/2003 1:00AM

Woolsey picks up where he left off

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - For several years jockey Russell Woolsey came to Tampa in the winter after battling top riders at Delaware Park in the summer. While he never cracked the top 10 at Tampa Bay Downs he quietly knocked out a decent living.

Then last April, when several of the leading jockeys left this meeting early to ride at other tracks for the summer, Woolsey had the opportunity to get on some live mounts. He made the most of those chances, winning a flurry of races in the final four weeks of the season to finish with 29 wins, which put him in a tie for ninth in the standings.

After leaving here Woolsey did fairly well at Louisiana Downs, but he really didn't take to that area of the country and looked forward to returning to Florida.

Trainer Duane Knipe, who has been one of Woolsey's backers for several years, put the rider on some solid mounts early in this meeting, and Woolsey, instead of playing catch-up, has been a force since day one.

Woolsey posted a riding triple last Sunday to continue his climb toward the top of the rider standings. Through Friday's races Woolsey had ridden 24 winners and ranked fourth behind Jesus Castanon, Joe Judice, and Juan Umana.

"We've been doing a little better each year, but this truly has been sort of a breakthrough meeting," Woolsey said Saturday. "I was encouraged with the way the meet ended last season and hoped some of that business would carry over.

"Mr. Knipe has certainly been one of my biggest boosters, but there are a number of other outfits that have been using me regularly, and sticking with me. It's very heartening to know when you ride for somebody it's not just a one-time deal. My agent, Josie Palmisaro, has been doing a great job and right now things are clicking.

Woolsey has been riding the turf course exceptionally well.

"On the turf you can relax and sort of let the race come to you," he said. "You don't have the dirt hitting you in the face, it's not hitting your horse in the face. [Horses] are natural grazing and grass animals, and they don't much like that stuff flying back and hitting them. You can tuck inside and wait for your spot and most of the time you can get your mount to relax and cooperate for you."