02/25/2004 12:00AM

Chris Thomas was one of a kind


PHILADELPHIA - Chris Thomas was one of the best people anybody could ever hope to know. He was bright, funny, sharp, and fearless. The only thing he loved as much as life itself was the track.

He loved racing so much that, in the last few years, he got to fulfill a lifelong dream by putting together a syndicate to form CT Stable and, subsequently, several offshoots of it. His website, ctstable.com, was classic Chris. It included detailed updates on all the horses and his musings on everything.

When a friend called last fall to tell me Chris was dying, I called Chris in Tampa, Fla. He told me he thought the doctors had gotten the cancer. He knew better and so did I.

Chris was so popular in Tampa that when he let the listeners to his morning radio talk show know that he was putting together a group to buy horses, they sent in thousands of dollars to be part of it.

In the blow-dried world of television, Chris wore no makeup. And took no prisoners.

In Baltimore and then in Tampa, Chris's sportscasts were anything but a recitation of scores and a showing of highlights. You always tuned in because you never knew what he might say or do.

He was incredibly creative. He was over the top years before the anchors at ESPN even started to be funny. He was absolutely spur of the moment. One night in Baltimore, after the lottery numbers had been read, the camera turned to Chris. It was his turn; only he thought he had hit the lottery. He just started screaming on air. And he kept screaming. If he ever gave the sports, nobody remembers. It was a legendary night in Baltimore sports. Later, Chris found out he was off by a few numbers.

No matter. There was always the track.

So many days together at Pimlico, Laurel, Bowie, and Timonium. And those Friday and Saturday nights each October in that smoky bar outside Penn National after sessions of the World Series of Handicapping. Who could possibly forget?

And who could forget the year Chris came up with 30-1 Head for the Keys in the final race on the final day of the contest? The horse fought off a dozen challenges, lost the lead in the stretch, and came again to win by a nose. Chris got up for second in the contest and everybody who knew him celebrated like it was their money.

When Chris took a job in Tampa and performed his on-air magic there, he created a whole new band of believers. He was irreverent, but never nasty. He worked hard, but made it look easy. He had an edge, but it was never so sharp that you could not smile.

In Baltimore, he had this blow-up doll of dastardly Colts owner Robert Irsay that he used to prop up in a chair next to him. The owner's incriminating words somehow came out of his mouth while the camera was pointed at the doll. It was so clever and so right.

A few days before every Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup, I would come on Chris's radio show to talk about the races. We occasionally would be serious, but mostly we would end up laughing about the vagaries of horse racing and ourselves.

Two years ago, Chris bought Super Fuse for $38,000. When the gelding hit triple digits on the Beyer scale that summer of his 2-year-old season, offers came pouring in. At one point, Super Fuse was sold. But the deal fell though and Chris's Alpha One Stable kept racing him. To date, Super Fuse has won more than a quarter-million dollars.

In his most recent start, a sprint for high-priced optional claimers Wednesday at Aqueduct, the 4-year-old Super Fuse finished third in a four-horse field .

No matter how Super Fuse or any of the other horses Chris bought for his partners perform in the future, there will forever be a winner's circle with him in it.

Chris died on Feb. 18. He was 55. His funeral was last Monday in Tampa. You read the local newspapers and see the televised tributes to him. You realize everybody down there knew exactly what we knew up here. There was simply nobody like him.

In a world where most people are afraid to take a stand and principal is far more important than principle, Chris Thomas was different. He stood for something. He was loyal. He was decent. He was the kind of person you never forget.

General sports commentators usually know nothing about horse racing, ignore it, or both. Chris knew it and he embraced it. Everybody who knew Chris lost a great friend. So did horse racing.