07/04/2001 12:00AM

A book you won't want to put down

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PHILADELPHIA - While contemplating the possibilities of the July 4 Hollywood Park pick six and trying to make sense of all the holiday stakes at Belmont Park in pursuit of the elusive perfect bet, one thought just will not go away.

My mind can't escape the 1930's. If you do nothing else this summer, read "Seabiscuit: An American Legend." Once you do, it will happen to you.

You will find yourself at Pimlico on Nov. 1, 1938 for the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race. You will be on trains that carried Seabiscuit from coast to coast. You will be there at Santa Anita when Seabiscuit finally wins the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940.

You will learn about an owner who changed the country, a trainer who went against all conventional wisdom, and two jockey stories that can't possibly be true. The book reads like fiction. It is all carefully documented as true.

A few days before the 1998 Breeders' Cup, I was in Lexington working on a story about Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith. Before heading to Rupp Arena for an exhibition game, I stopped in a local restaurant with only a horse magazine for company.

I happened to turn to an article that was originally printed in American Heritage, not a place to find your typical horse racing literature. In seconds, I was entranced.

The writing, the story, and the research were brilliant, nothing like anything ever done on the sport. I remember nothing about dinner, but everything about the article.

What I remembered most was that it was going to become a book. When the book finally arrived in bookstores early this year, I waited.

The wonderful reviews poured in. The book made it to the best-seller's list. Still, I waited.

This was a book I wanted to savor. My plate needed to be clean. There could be no distractions.

So, as the NBA playoffs surrounded the Triple Crown and time became just a concept for those of us covering both, the book stayed in the back of my mind.

Finally, as June neared an end, the time was right.

The book, was worth the wait. Author Laura Hillenbrand takes the readers back to an era when horse racing, baseball, and boxing were the only sports that mattered, a time when one horse somehow seemed to represent the American dream as the country was pulling out of the Great Depression.

They didn't have "radio ratings," but apparently the only people who didn't listen to Seabiscuit's biggest races were either asleep or dead. They came by the hundreds just to see the horse pass through their towns by rail. They came by the thousands to see the horse work out. They came by the tens of thousands to see the horse race.

The romance of the sport in that era is something we can only imagine. Thankfully, Hillenbrand has taken us so close to the romance that we can at least sense it.

In this era of studio racing, never-ending race meets, and horses who are retired to stud after getting a top Beyer in a maiden race, the Seabiscuit story seems much further than six decades away.

The only similarities between the sport then and now is that horses still run around ovals. And there is this. Early speed mattered then, too. See Chapter 19, "``The Second Civil War,'' for incontrovertible evidence.