03/30/2011 12:39PM

Cruelest month starts out on pleasant note

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April Fools’ Day is not a holiday. It evolved in the years following the 16th century European conversion to a calendar year that began on the first day of January instead of the first day of April. Those who continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1 were considered foolish. People can be so cruel.

Through the years, the pranksters have gotten even. April Fools’ Day has evolved into a culturally encouraged opportunity to humiliate the humorless and expose the dangerously gullible. These are good things.

Believe it or not, the Taco Bell Corporation got angry calls on that April day in 1996 when it announced that it was purchasing the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and renaming it the “Taco Bell.” Taco Bell is now part of Yum! Brands, whose name is corporately tattooed to the Kentucky Derby. No fooling.

On April 1, 1992, there was a blood-curdling reaction to the report on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” that Richard Nixon had announced he would run for President again, stating, “I didn’t do anything wrong and I won’t do it again.” Right there is a good reason NPR deserves my tax dollars.

In 1990, Golf Magazine had to retract its published report (in the May issue, on newsstands in April) that the exclusive Augusta National, the stuffy home of the Masters, would be offering tee times to the public at large. If only.

This reporter was witness to a beautifully crafted AF hoax at Santa Anita in 1978 when the great mare Waya was being saddled with increasingly higher weights in handicaps. A creative publicist, who went on to be a rousing success in the larger PR world, fashioned a tale that was too absurd to believe – that Waya’s latest assignment of 140 pounds was the last straw and that she would be retired and bred to Elephant Walk. David Whiteley, her trainer, loved the joke, especially when he read it printed straight-faced in the Los Angeles Times. The Times turf writer who filed the item was not similarly amused.

I never get tired of citing the prank that featured horses in one of Italy‘s grandest cities. The website of the Museum of Hoaxes tells it best:

“The citizens of Venice woke on the morning of April 1, 1919, to find piles of horse manure deposited throughout the Piazza San Marco, as if a procession of horses had gone through there during the night. This was extremely unusual, since the Piazza is surrounded by canals and not easily accessible to horses. The manure turned out to be the work of the infamous British prankster Horace de Vere Cole, who was honeymooning in Venice. He had transported a load of manure over from the mainland the night before with the help of a gondolier and had then deposited small piles of it throughout the Piazza.”

Friday marks the first anniversary of TVG’s feature revealing that the 2010 Hollywood Park meet would experiment with a revolutionary, color-coded system that would aid fans in the identification of horses as they ran. Trainers Ron Ellis, Marty Jones, and Doug O’Neill managed to play it straight in the name of a good goof, and the “horse painting” video went viral. The fact that some viewers actually believed the story is either a tribute to production values or another reason not to go outside. Pick ‘em.

(There also was last week’s news from TVG, now owned by Betfair, that Bob Baedeker, Chris Kotulak, Frank Lyons, and Frank Mirahmadi were being axed from the roster of on-air analysts. These are talented people with a respect for the game. Business is business, but no one was laughing.)

The term April Fools persists in culture. The April Fools Old-Time String is the pride of Moore County, North Carolina. The movies “April Fools’ Day“ in 1986 “April Fools” in 1997, are supposedly horror flicks, while “The April Fools,” a 1969 film starring Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve, is on the lighter side. (A New York Times synopsis described it this way: “Some good dialogue, notably Lemmon’s shaggy-dog story about goldfish and Chinese food, cannot hide the slightness of the piece. Still, a great many filmgoers were charmed.”)

Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote the title song for “The April Fools,” which was performed on the soundtrack album by the Percy Faith Orchestra and chorus. That same year, Bacharach and David wrote some little ditty about raindrops for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that ended up winning them an Oscar.

The year before “Raindrops” hit, Bacharach bought his first racehorse, a 2-year-old named Battle Royal, for $15,000, who was trained by Charlie Whittingham. At the time, and for a long time before and after, Bacharach had an exclusive recording deal with A&M Records. Jerry Moss, the “M” in A&M, shared Bacharach’s passion for horse racing, and in 1983 they had way too much fun, when Moss campaigned the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap winner Fighting Fit and Bacharach basked in the glow of Heartlight No. One, his Eclipse Award winning 3-year-old filly.

Bacharach went on to racing success with colts like Soul of the Matter and Afternoon Deelites, while Moss did okay too, winning the Kentucky Oaks with Sardula, the Santa Anita Handicap with Ruhlmann, the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, and 19 of 20 races with Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year.

Which comes to now. On Friday, April 1, Zenyatta will celebrate her seventh birthday. Only a fool would fail to be grateful for the day.