11/21/2003 1:00AM

40 years ago, a dark day like no other

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Russ Harris, the respected turf writer and historian, was sitting at the sports desk of the Miami Herald early on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, working on a Sunday piece about the opening of the Tropical Park meet a few days hence.

"The wire room was about 20 yards away," Harris recalled this week. "Bob Elliot, the sports editor, came over and said, 'Somebody shot President Kennedy.' I was shocked. It was a great tragedy, because I thought he was becoming a great president. But it's strange the things that go through your mind. I'm writing that story, and I remember thinking how I always heard people say that Tropical was always having trouble."

And so it went, rippling across a traumatized nation, from ground zero in Dealey Plaza to the farthest reaches of America. No one knew how to act, or what to think, because no one had ever been there before. Young and old, black and white, Republican and Democrat alike shared in the awful reality of that dark autumn day, when the elected leader of their lawful society was slaughtered in broad daylight, with his wife at his side.

Forty years ago, the horse racing community was as confused in its response as every other American institution. Stores closed and churches opened. With no central governing authority, individual racetrack managements had to make the difficult choice: respectful closure or brave business as usual.

Agua Caliente, racing only on weekends, shut down both Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 23 and 24. Little Shenandoah Downs, in Charles Town, W.Va., canceled its programs of Nov. 22, 23, and 25. Narragansett Park in Rhode Island ended racing after the third race Nov. 22, not long after the president's death was announced, and remained dark for three more days. The New York Racing Association called off the balance of its Nov. 22 Aqueduct card and stayed closed both Saturday and Monday. In those days there was no Sunday racing.

A little after one o'clock on Nov. 22, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, general manager Charles "Chick" Lang was hosting a luncheon in honor of jockey Sam Boulmetis when his secretary entered the room and whispered the news from Dallas in his ear. Lang excused himself and found a TV.

"When I heard Walter Cronkite say that the president was dead, you knew it had really happened," said Lang, who today acts as a consultant to a variety of racing interests. "Everybody was wounded. I saw people cry that I thought never had a tear in their body. People started asking me what we were going to do. Were we going to continue racing? I couldn't answer right away. I'd never experienced anything so dramatic before."

As it turned out, Lang sent his employees home midway through the Friday program. But he told them to come back the following day. The show would go on.

"We were highly criticized," Lang said. "And to this day, I have mixed emotions about whether or not I did the right thing."

One of those who disagreed with Lang's decision was Bill Shoemaker, who was scheduled to ride Rokeby Stable's up-and-coming colt Quadrangle in the $176,000 Pimlico Futurity on Nov. 23.

"Bill didn't think it was right to run," Lang said. "He told me we were making a terrible mistake, and that he was not going to ride. He wasn't the only one who felt that way. I had people come up to me on that Saturday and tell me they had no respect for me. I had to ask them, if they felt that way, what were they doing there. It was a very difficult day."

The weather reflected the mood. A rainstorm swept through the mid-Atlantic, rendering Pimlico's strip a sloppy mess. The pragmatic Elliott Burch trained Quadrangle for Paul Mellon - the son of former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon - and he was more concerned about track condition than he was the identity of his jockey. Quadrangle, as it turned out, was sitting on a huge race.

"I felt very bad about the president," said Burch, retired now and living in Rhode Island. "I would have felt bad, too, if we didn't get to run. Mr. and Mrs. Mellon couldn't come to the race because of their connection with the Kennedys."

So the Pimlico Futurity went forth in what was a near-total American sports vacuum. Burch got Bill Hartack to ride, and Quadrangle won by 10 lengths, tipping the form that eventually would take him to the top of his division as the winner of the 1964 Wood Memorial and Belmont Stakes.

"It was a very sad day, and we all debated whether or not to run," said Mack Miller, who tried to beat Quadrangle with Murad. "It was hard to know if it was right or wrong to continue. Of course, it worked out fine for Elliott."

Chick Lang watched a modern generation of racetrack operators agonize over the same questions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. He said, were he given a second chance, that Pimlico would have remained dark the day after President Kennedy was killed.

"I guess you learn from experience," Lang said. "But it was such a horrible shock. Are there any rules in a situation like that? I just kept thinking - over and over - this can't happen here. But it did."