07/10/2011 11:39AM

Music to My Ears

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While waiting for the Hollywood Gold Cup horses to take the stage on Saturday, I tickled the keyboard and landed on this headline:

"Sports Illustrated's Ultimate Playlist"

I was intrigued. Turns out, this being only baseball season and football effectively locked out, SI's editors with time on their hands turned on the nostalgia tap and cobbled together a Top 40 songs with sports themes. Their game, their rules, which meant SI's tastemakers turned their attention to real music by real artists who are known for writing songs that do not immediately turn up in commercials (even though the money is good and they never turn it down when it happens). Sadly, that also eliminated an entire calatogue of juicy soccer songs from the terraces (especially anything, I'm told, referring to Leeds United), along with such obvious choices as "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "On Wisconsin." I was saddened, though, to see that Danny Kaye's classic "D-O-D-G-E-R-S" did not make the cut. But then, it hasn't been a good year for the Bankrupt Boys in Blue.

Among the artists represented with songs on the Ultimate Playlist are Springsteen, Morrissey, Mark Knopfler, Ry Cooder, Warren Zevon, Ben Folds Five and Simon & Garfunkel (for "The Boxer," a slam dunk). Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore?" -- Moore was the featherweight killed in a championship bout in Los Angeles in 1963 -- tops the list because, well, he's Dylan. The Beach Boys are right there at No. 2 with "Surfin' USA," and John Fogerty made No. 7 with "Centerfield," which he sang at the 2010 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown while playing a guitar shaped like a baseball bat.

There are a number of tunes on the list I could pretend to know -- "Muhammed Ali" by Faithless, "The Ballad of Bjorn Borg" by Pernice Brothers, "Darryl Dawkins' Sound of Love" by the Screaming Headless Torsos -- but close friends who know my tastes would call me out. And while baseball and boxing themes dominate, I was pleasantly surprised to find no less than three horse racing songs among SI's 40. (Thankfully none of them were "Camptown Races," although I wouldn't have minded the Johnny Cash version --http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noYptXPHiAE -- in which he smoothed out the minstrel show flavor of the lyrics.) Here's what SI came up with:

No. 18 -- "Fugue for Tinhorns," by Frank Loesser, from "Guys and Dolls," and especially the version that kicked off the 1955 movie of the same name, with Stubby Kaye, Ed Fletcher and Neil Scott Moutrey snapping a three-way racetrack round slicker than turning a double-play, touting the chances of nags called Paul Revere, Valentine and Epitaph (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxAX74gM8DY). For some reason SI did not push Barry Manilow's take on the tune.

No. 35 -- "Stewball," described as perhaps having "the richest history of any sports song," originated as an 18th English ballad about a horse owned by Lord Godolphin who whipped some Irish hotshot. There are numerous covers of the folky waltz arrangement (Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Hollies) but the version cited by SI is the one carried through American history as a slave song recorded in 1940 by Leadbelly (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP7AAYhmX8E). They got the right one.

No. 37 -- It was Buffy Ford Stewart who called my attention to the SI list, and rightfully so since her husband's rocking tribute to Secretariat, "Let the Big Horse Run," belongs in this company. Stewart, the son of a harness horse trainer, died in 2008. Besides "July, You're a Woman," "Daydream Believer," "Gold" and "Runaway Train" he wrote a stack of hits during his run with the Kingston Trio. He also wrote a song about my wife called "Slider," which could have made the SI list, and a lullaby for my daughter, because he could. Stewart said he wrote "Let the Big Horse Run" for a TV movie that never got made. Years later, his fans tried to get the ear of the folks who made "Secretariat" to give the tune consideration, but they went with "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers instead. You be the judge (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFx68BIfMiM).

****

First Dude, Game on Dude and Twirling Candy might not roll off the tongue quite as melodiously as Paul Revere, Valentine and Epitaph, but they put on a great show. The nose and neck that separated the three at the end of the Hollywood Gold Cup brought an end to an exciting and satisfying running of the event, echoing the Crystal Water, Cascapedia, Caucasus three-way of 1977 and the Real Quiet, Budroyale, Malek mixer of 1999. Even better, this year's Gold Cup was a truly run race in which there were no excuses and the best three horses were there at the end. It was just a shame two of them had to lose.

By now it is clear the mile and a quarter brings Twirling Candy back to earth, while the longer distance plays solidly to Game on Dude's strengths as a relentless, stubborn galloper. First Dude straddles both worlds and would seem to have the most competitive upside. But he was the lightweight of the three, so let's hold off until they all pack the same number in the saddle. Hopefully that will be on Aug. 28 at Del Mar for the $1 million Pacific Classic.