03/19/2004 12:00AM

Even Derby trail needs a rest stop


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is not true that American racing writers are subject to fines and sanctions during March and April if they fail to deliver at least one paragraph each day of news, analysis or speculation about the relative abilities of the current Kentucky Derby crop.

It only seems that way.

Apologies, then, for straying from the script and offering these few items that contain neither of the words "Nick" nor "Zito." We'll get back to that on Monday.

* Horse Opera. David Milch is known far and wide as a deeply committed horseplayer, a Thoroughbred breeder, and the owner of such outstanding runners as Gilded Time, Tuzla, and Val Royal. He also dabbles in television ("NYPD Blue" is his best-known work), and on Sunday night his latest creation will emerge from the screen to rattle cages everywhere.

"Deadwood" is Milch's 12-part HBO series about the the South Dakota gold rush town that sprung to life as a full-blown Gomorrah more than 125 years ago. It is not for the delicate or the squeamish, but then, neither was the real Deadwood.

In fact, "Deadwood" owes some of its gritty texture in both language and character to trainer Darrell Vienna, a rodeo rider in his youth, who played a special kind of matchmaker early in the process.

"I introduced David to some real-life cowboys," said Vienna, who trained champion colt Gilded Time for Milch. "They are true throwbacks to another era. There's nothing 'Hollywood' about them."

When not otherwise occupied with the life of the mind, Milch can be found at a Southern California track, handicapping away, comfortable in the knowledge that the next race belongs to him. Here's hoping he has a winner on Sunday night.

* Blast from the Past. San Diego journalist Tom Sprague shared a rare treasure this week when he handed over an issue of "Post Time - America's Authority on Racing," published by Turf Publications of Chicago and in near-mint condition.

Sprinkled among the ads for five-dollar handicapping systems and Carmac horse ratings were such racing tales as "Death Rides the Winner" and "Tribulations of a Mutuel Clerk's Wife." (She had a legitimate beef.) But the best of the bunch was a commentary by one Marvin Miller, who called his column "Let's See About This!"

Times were changing, and horse racing was emerging from a bad period of shrinking purses and wasted horseflesh. The tide had turned, though, and horse owners found themselves suddenly in demand, with racetracks hustling for runners.

"When there is a shortage of horses, the fields are small," Miller observed. "That means light betting, as the public will not bet freely unless the fields are fairly large and the approximate odds more or less attractive. With good horses and large fields, the public pours a steady stream of money into the mutuel machines, and the promoters profit in a manner almost beyond belief."

The issue was dated May of 1937. My how things haven't changed.

* Will Work for Food. A racing trade publication briefly posted an item this week noting that a certain public handicapper was offering his services on eBay for $52,000 a year. And no, it wasn't our own Brad Free. Rest assured that Daily Racing Form pays him handsomely for his outstanding work. Besides, as a soon-to-be published author, he spends more than a grand a week on wardrobe and tips.

Still, the idea is intriguing - a professional handicapper at one's constant disposal. If that catches on, why not a personal turf writer? A racetrack Boswell at your beck and call.

Each day, the patron would be greeted with a haiku describing track condition and scratches. A sonnet (standard 14 lines, classic rhyme scheme) would accompany breakfast, laden with gossipy tidbits from the backstretch. By mid-afternoon, as the racing day unfolds, a critical screed tailored to the client (owner, breeder, horseplayer) would decry all that is wrong and crooked about the sport and all that is good and true about the client. The day would end with an amusing limerick ("There once was a track in Nantucket . . . ") pinned to the patron's pillow. Blogging optional.

* Against the Wind. The week started out on a festive note for Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who declared Monday, March 15, "Bob Seger Day" in the state to honor their native son's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Tell me that "workin' on mysteries without any clues" wouldn't be a great catchphrase for horse racing.)

By the end of the week, however, Granholm had to deal with Frank Stronach and the Magna Entertainment Corporation's bid to build a track just north of Motown itself, in a community called Romulus. According to MEC, the permits have languished at the state government level for 18 months.

The Detroit Free Press quoted Stronach as saying he planned to ask Gov. Granholm, "Look, do you want us here or not? We want a straight answer. It shouldn't take that long. We're getting jerked around."

Whether or not Stronach actually used such an approach during his face-to-face meeting with Gov. Granholm is not known. But it just might work . . . in Deadwood.