07/07/2005 12:00AM

Gold watch time at Gold Cup


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With a pot of $750,000 on the line, there always will exist the temptation for a rider to cut things a little close, drift a lane here or there, and otherwise try to grab a slender edge that could make the difference between earning a healthy share of the purse, or merely a token mount fee.

Still, if they wouldn't mind, it would be great if the jockeys involved in the 66th running of the Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday could negotiate the mile and a quarter without actionable incident, and all horses enjoy smooth sailing.

The plan is to have senior steward Pete Pedersen, a winner of the Eclipse Award of Merit, present the Gold Cup trophy to the winning connections. It is a well-deserved tribute in recognition of his long and honorable career as a racing official, which comes to an end at the conclusion of the Hollywood meet. But, as Pedersen himself has noted, "The best stewards are neither seen nor heard." Such naked public exposure is about the last thing a man in his position needs.

"I told them they were really taking a chance," Pedersen said this week, after failing to dissuade track management from their presentation plans. "If I were shot there would be many suspects."

Pedersen, who turned 85 on the Fourth of July, has left a paper trail of integrity, wisdom, and historical perspective that stretches back to his earliest officiating days on a pole at old Longacres in his native Seattle. Along the way he also walked hots, sold a public handicap, and covered horse racing for whatever local papers would pay.

Eventually, California got lucky and Pedersen came to stay, first in the Bay Area and then as a regular on the Southern California rotation. He witnessed his first Hollywood Gold Cup as a steward in 1979 when Affirmed defeated Sirlad. As a fan, however, Pedersen goes back a bit further than that.

"The first Gold Cup I saw was actually run in the winter of 1950, the year after the place burned down," he recalled. "That was Noor who won it. Palestinian second. Hill Prince third."

When the Hollywood Park tenure of his career commenced, Pedersen found himself making all kinds of history. At that level, it usually comes with the territory.

In 1981, his second season in the Hollywood stand, Pedersen was part of a stewards panel that disqualified Caterman and Darrel McHargue from victory in the Gold Cup, awarding the race to runner-up Eleven Stitches and Sandy Hawley.

"That call wasn't tough," Pedersen said. "Darrel McHargue whined about it - of course, everybody does - but later he reminded me that he never said we made the wrong decision. He was just fighting for what he could, and you expect that, even though they might find out later that they were wrong."

McHargue, it should be noted, went on to become a California steward.

"Licensees never forget," Pedersen said. "I had a jock's agent come up to me once and tell me I was the only one who ever fined him. I told him I wasn't alone, and then asked him when it was. He picked some date 25 years earlier. I asked him how much. It was 25 dollars."

Pedersen was involved in another Gold Cup DQ in 2001 when Futural was taken down for bothering third-place Skimming. Runner-up Aptitude, an innocent bystander, ended up with the prize.

"Nothing is as bad as when you have to take a clear winner down for bothering, say, a fourth-place horse," Pedersen said. "Sometimes you might wish the rules were different. But the rules are there, if it cost that horse a part of the purse."

The whole racing world was watching Pedersen and his Hollywood colleagues on Nov. 10, 1984, when they disqualified Fran's Valentine and Pat Valenzuela from victory in the first running of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies for nearly dropping Pirate's Revenge and Fernando Toro at the top of the stretch.

"Eddie Arcaro didn't like officials much, but he said if you didn't have them, the jocks would go out there and kill each other," Pedersen said. "In fact, he tried once and was suspended a year. I know they can't run in lanes - there has to be competition. But the safety of the horse and rider is something we have to be concerned with all the time."

It was not Pedersen's idea to retire next week. He had hoped to say farewell at the end of the year, but the technicalities of stewards' contracts forced the issue early. Beyond writing the occasional story, he is not all that certain what the future holds.

"I've been coming out to the racetrack all my life, so I'll probably keep doing it," Pedersen said. "Sometimes I think it might be fun to get a horse that can run a little. That's something that could keep a fellow interested.

"So many people I know who've retired, I never see them again," he added. "Then last Saturday, when we had 13 horses in the Oaks here, they didn't have enough valets. So they hired two or three fellows I hadn't seen for a long time. Just going back to work that one day made them the happiest guys in the world."