05/07/2007 11:00PM

On the Acorn's races echo an owner's past


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The race that made Jack Disney a racing fan, eventually a publicist for the sport, and most recently a stakes-winning horse owner, was not the event that hooks most people into the world of Thoroughbreds.

Way back in 1962, when Bill Shoemaker rode Olden Times to a front-running win in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita, Disney, a 26-year-old sportswriter, watched in admiration with friends in a Los Angeles bar.

"The hair on the back of my neck stood up," Disney recalled recently. "To see Shoemaker carry this sprinter for a mile and three-quarters really turned my interest from a casual fan to a dedicated fan."

More than four decades later, it was Disney and five friends who were in the winner's circle following the April 22 San Juan Capistrano, celebrating the first stakes win for On the Acorn, a gelding they claimed for $40,000 last fall.

The remarkable rise of On the Acorn, and the success of the partnership known as Indizguys Stable, may continue on Saturday in the $250,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Disney also has a personal history with this race. For many years, Disney worked alongside the late Jim Murray in the press boxes of Los Angeles sporting events. Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, died in 1998.

"I can't think of two races that mean more to me personally," Disney said.

Disney spent 35 years as a sportswriter for the now-defunct Herald-Examiner.

"I think I covered the Lakers for three years, the Angels for three, the Dodgers for two, USC football, and the Raiders for six or seven years," he said.

While covering the Lakers, at a time when the team featured Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Disney and Murray became friends.

"It was a close-knit group," Disney said. "It was a long-term friendship that I nurtured until his death."

When the Herald-Examiner folded in 1989, Disney began working as a publicist at Hollywood Park. He is now a publicist at Santa Anita.

Several years ago, Disney, his brother Doug, and Buck Rodgers, the former baseball manager of the Expos and Angels, teamed together to claim a Thoroughbred at Los Alamitos. Their first horse won, and so did the next.

"I think it was a matter of being in the right spot at the right time," said Rodgers, now retired from baseball. "When I called Jack, I said, 'Do you know anybody that would take on a partner?' He said, 'My brother and I were thinking of that same thing.' "

The initial success prompted the trio to expand. At Los Alamitos, "you can only go so far," Disney said. "We thought, if we could bring in three more people, we could do the same on a bigger scale at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park for the same cost. I searched my mind for people that I knew in sports over the years that expressed interest."

That led to the inclusion of Ross Newhan, a baseball writer for the Los Angeles Times; Paul Salata, a former football player with USC and the San Francisco 49ers; and insurance executive Fred Krueger, a friend of Rodgers'.

It is Salata who founded Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach, Calif., an annual weekend of charity events honoring the final player selected in the NFL Draft. (This year's honoree in mid-June will be Alabama cornerback Ramzee Robinson, selected by the Detroit Lions.)

When it came to claiming a horse, the team of six anted $3,500 each and picked trainer Mike Mitchell.

"We claimed a horse for $20,000," Disney said. "Every horse we've had with Mitchell has paid its way or come darn close to paying its way."

On the Acorn was claimed last November. He finished ninth in his first start, a $50,000 claimer, but has won 3 of his last 4 starts, earning the group $248,800.

"Mike seemed to think that the horse had potential," said Disney, 71. "He said, 'The first thing I'd do is geld him.' That's been the big turning point."

The Murray will feature a tougher field than the San Juan Capistrano, but that does not concern Rodgers.

"We never expected to have a stakes horse," he said. "I keep calling him our $40,000 John Henry"

The success has prompted Disney and Mitchell to consider the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Hollywood Park's synthetic track.

"We never could have dreamed of winning the San Juan Capistrano, and we're thinking of nominating for the Gold Cup, if he does really well," Disney said.

The Hollywood Gold Cup will be run for the 68th time on June 30. For Disney, that brings back a whole new set of memories.