02/28/2004 1:00AM

Zimmerman gaining momentum


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Ramsey Zimmerman endured some long afternoons during the early portion of this meet, when live mounts were hard to come by. One frustrating day not long ago ended with Zimmerman being thrown to the ground after a green maiden decided to take a right turn in midstretch.

But lately his luck has changed. Zimmerman started winning, better horses started coming his way, and on Feb. 21 he hit a high point for the meeting when he guided Kaufy Mate to a stunning upset over Triple Crown hopeful The Cliff's Edge for a $71.40 payoff in the $100,000 Sam Davis Stakes, the local prep for the Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

And to top it off, the Davis win came on Zimmerman's 22nd birthday.

Zimmerman has 20 wins at the current meeting. His hungry attitude and riding style have impressed many trainers, including Kirk Ziadie, who gave him the leg up on Kaufy Mate in the Davis.

"You can just see the talent in the kid," Ziadie said. "He tries very hard, and I think he's a heck of a rider."

Zimmerman, who caught the racing bug as a youngster in Chicago, first got going as an apprentice at Fairmount Park, then later had stints at Ellis Park and the Chicago tracks. He had originally planned on heading back to Chicago when this meeting came to a close, but his success with Ziadie has him thinking about trying his luck on the south Florida circuit.

"I'm completely focused on my riding now," Zimmerman said. "Outside relationships and activities take a back seat right now. I just want to win."

As for moving his tack to Miami, Zimmerman said, "I think I'm ready for the challenge. I want to prove myself."

Two other new faces make mark

In addition to Zimmerman, a couple of other jockeys riding here regularly for the first time have been turning some heads.

Winston Thompson, who won 118 races last season while ranking among the leaders at Suffolk Downs, has been gaining momentum in recent weeks. On Friday he rode two winners, including Immortal Charm, a longshot who paid $115.80. Beaten almost 21 lengths last time out, Immortal Charm was up in the final strides to give Thompson his 17th win of the season.

Alfredo Clemente finished a head behind Thompson in that race after suffering some traffic problems with his mount, Darby Haven. Clemente has been riding many of the horses in the barn of Lynn Scace, who has ranked among the leaders in the training ranks here the past several seasons. Clemente has 18 wins through Friday's races.

Events to help backstretch workers

Most racetrack workers, especially those on the backstretch, work in a sometimes dangerous environment with little or no health or disability benefits. When someone is injured, the racing community often rallies to his or her support.

Brian "Boo Boo" Clair, a veteran jockey and exercise rider, suffered serious leg injuries in a training accident, and after several operations his future in the saddle is still in doubt. On March 7, Ed Hennessy, who owns Hennessy's Grill, is sponsoring a pig roast dinner to benefit Clair. Hennessy is underwriting the food costs, and proceeds will help Clair get through his long recuperation period.

Tickets, which are $10, may be obtained on the backstretch from Roger Cox, the racetrack chaplain, or at Hennessy's on Forest Lakes Boulevard.

* On March 8, the Hearts Reaching Out Foundation, an organization that works to benefit backstretch workers, will hold a golf tournament, buffet, and auction. Tickets for the buffet/auction are $10.

Among the auction items are tickets to the Indianapolis 500, including pit passes and accommodations; and seasons to several stallions, including Unbridled and Metfield.