04/19/2004 11:00PM

With the Derby, promotion is king

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Some time before he left this mortal track of tears, or perhaps while traveling up the heavenly path he surely trod, Col. Matt Winn stopped and blessed his beautiful baby.

I wasn't at the benediction, but it probably went like this: "Lord, bless the Kentucky Derby, even in lean years when there are no overwhelming favorites, and send someone or something to keep those press releases flowing."

He obviously was heard on high.

A good example came 20 years ago, when Devil's Bag, the 2-year-old champion of 1983, grabbed the headlines. For weeks leading up to the Derby, every oat he consumed, every flake of hay in his bedding, every deep breath he inhaled or snort he exhaled was avidly noted and duly reported. His picture, getting a bath or looking over his stall door or taking a walk, or doing something or anything or nothing, was a daily feature. He never got to run in the Derby, but he generated huge pools of ink.

Last year Funny Cide burst from the clouds, along with Jack Knowlton and his daily pronouncements, and the yellow bus and the crew of good old boys from Sackets Harbor. They were a writer's dream, good copy win or lose.

And now, out of northeast Philadelphia, that hotbed of champions of the turf, comes Smarty Jones.

Undefeated in six starts, he may turn out to be the real thing. I will leave the Beyer Figures and fractions and caliber of competition to my colleagues, but one thing I know for certain: Real or not - regardless of pedigree or humble beginnings or a freshman Derby trainer or a jockey who is not Jerry Bailey - with a name like Smarty Jones he spells coverage and fulfills Col. Winn's celestial pleading. He brings drama to the Derby, and he will have a nationwide fan club - many of whom will know little more than his name - cheering him a week from Saturday, unless some equine disaster intervenes.

My first Derby, like a first romance, was memorable. It did not come until I had spent 27 years in racing, but it was the right one to start with, and under the right circumstances.

It was Secretariat's victory of 1973. Lynn Stone was running things at Churchill at the time, and he and Bill King, who ran the pretty little harness track called Louisville Downs that later became Churchill's Sports Spectrum, were good friends.

King was as well known as Stone in Louisville and better known elsewhere, for he was a supreme sports promoter, as good in his own right as Matt Winn. He promoted everything - huge boat shows in Louisville and elsewhere, motorcycle races, a young Louisville heavyweight named Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali - and he did it with flair. Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese and Notre Dame and Green Bay Packer Golden Boy Paul Hornung were two of King's closest friends, and added color at Louisville Downs and at Bill's parties. Master promoter Sonny Werblin was an ardent admirer. It was Werblin who saw what was coming in horse racing, and at his urging Bill King became the father of account wagering, with a local network of televised shows and phone betting from Louisville Downs. He also came up with an idea that still is valid but overlooked today. He started a race called the Kentucky Pacing Derby and got it on CBS at halftime of an NFL game. "A horse race is the only sports event that can be told in its entirety between halves," he said, and he was right.

I spoke at the opening of Louisville Downs, and in 1973 King asked me to go to the Derby with him and his wife, Doris. I thought he was going to drive right into the clubhouse. Doors opened, ushers nodded, vendors and parkers shouted greetings, and he was warmly welcomed into the inner circle.

To give you the flavor of Bill King, he took Doris to Rome one year, and she bubbled with excitement at the prospect of seeing St. Peter's cathedral. Bill hired a limo, with Doris chattering excitedly about the history and drama of the place, and she was ecstatic when they pulled up. "I hope we can see everything," she told Bill. As the driver held the door, King leaned over and said quietly in his ear, "Keep the motor running."