08/18/2004 11:00PM

Fondly remembering a quintessential horseplayer

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Last week, two days before the Sword Dancer, racing lost one of its most loyal and irrepressible fans. Maybe you remember my father-in-law, Walter, from Saratoga columns past, when he would call from Long Island with tips from out of the blue. Long story short: They would run like gangbusters, he would cash, and I would mess it up.

Walter was found to have pancreatic cancer in January, three days before Audrae, his wife of 53 years, succumbed to a long illness. That is about the worst daily double of them all, yet you never would have guessed anything was wrong had he engaged you in conversation.

The chances of that happening were much better than average, because you very probably ran into Walter at the track or at an OTB parlor, or at an Islanders hockey game, where he had season tickets for 25 years.

If you're not from New York, you probably crossed paths with him in Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Europe, Hawaii, or even Iceland. Or at casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City to everywhere under the Mohegan Sun.

You probably did. He was the guy wearing the Daily Racing Form hat, who would point to it and say, "You see this hat? You know who my son-in-law is?"

If you didn't, you were about to hear all about it. Within five minutes, he knew your life story and you knew his. You were informed about his adventures as a Navy gunner during World War II, and you learned the names of his 10 grandchildren. If you were a stranger talking with him on the phone for the first time, within seconds he knew where you were from, where you went to school, whether you liked Thoroughbred racing, and how the weather was there.

An eternal optimist, Walter's worst reaction to a bad day at the races, or anything up until Audrae became gravely ill, would be to shrug his shoulders and say with an impish grin, "What can I tell you, darling? That's the way it is."

He went all over the world through his side job as the world's best travel agent, usually bumped up to first class all the way, with a complementary fruit basket waiting at the hotel. He was just that kind of guy. I've been a Spa local for almost a year, and yet every morning my Times Union is sprawled across the lawn, and it is always soaking wet. Walter got here the first of July and immediately received a free Times Union umbrella with his subscription.

Walter could have gone anywhere for his homestretch, but wild horses couldn't have stopped him from landing anywhere but Saratoga. At first he wanted to work at the track just doing anything where he would meet and greet people. By opening day, though, he had been forced into a wheelchair. Best laid plans, and all that. Nevertheless, his middle daughter, Robin, who is every inch her father, brought him to the first seminar at Siro's bright and early, and damned if he didn't stay for the whole card.

Fittingly, Walter's last day outside Saratoga Hospital began at the races. He stayed as long as he could and then it was just time to go. It was the end of his meet, and for all intents and purposes the end of mine, even though we were so looking forward to it just a few short weeks ago.

Walter not calling for the picks after the first round of scratches and changes every day is going to take some getting used to, because he was my biggest fan. Whether they were good picks or not-so-good picks didn't matter, because Walter defied racing's mathematical laws and percentages through the sheer power of positive thinking, if only in his own mind. His typical bets for a race would usually involve exactas and trifectas boxing my top three picks, and then keying whichever one he had a feeling about with some random longshots and anything ridden by Diane Nelson or Shannon Uske, because he always liked the ladies. All those combinations were easily affordable because the action was split among a large handful of fellow retirees who happened to be within arm's length.

At the end of the day, being up or down a few dollars was secondary, even though he could be as frugal as the day is long about other things. It was action, it was exciting, and it was being out and interacting with people. For Walter, that's what life was all about, and what a good life it was.