04/29/2008 12:00AM

Horse racing's idea man


TUCSON, Ariz. - Big Brown.

So much for the Derby. Now on to other matters.

Like you, I receive entreaties from lovers of narwhals, polar bears, and the spotted owl, asking for support of those worthy causes.

This week, I received word of another, from the non-profit Preservation League of New York.

It turns out the league has a different breed of threatened species in mind, one of its "Seven-to-Save Endangered Properties."

Saratoga Race Course.

The league is concerned about the historic dowager queen, saying the track is in danger "because of insufficient funding, general neglect, and insensitive public policies."

The listing was carried by Albany's Capital News 9 channel last weekend and may or may not have come as a surprise to Charlie Hayward and his NYRA associates. They may just be more concerned about those same grievances for their long state-delayed racino at Aqueduct.

Endangered or not, Saratoga is planning another big summer of America's best Thoroughbred racing.

Meanwhile, the nation this week breathes the rarified air over Louisville, where high hopes and a huge field present challenges that 20 3-year-olds have not yet experienced, including being asked to run 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May.

Big Brown should win, but I was spoiled for the Derby 35 years ago this May - Secretariat's year - by the smartest guy in Louisville.

His name was Bill King and among his accomplishments were the discovery and early promotion of a Louisville kid named Cassius Clay, later better known to the world as Muhammad Ali, and the introduction of simulcasting to racing.

King also promoted motorcycle races, held boat shows around America, and built a beautiful little racetrack that he later sold to Churchill Downs, which promptly turned it into their Sports Spectrum OTB. Before he sold it, however, he executed the idea that changed horse racing in America.

King was a friend of Sonny Werblin, the showman-genius responsible for the Meadowlands in New Jersey, and Werblin encouraged Bill to go ahead and try his radical idea of simulcasting races from his track to homes in the Louisville area. That was the beginning.

Actually, King was everyone's friend. A weekend at his country home was like a visit to a sports Hall of Fame. Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers was certain to be there, and so was Paul Hornung of Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers, and other friends from a variety of disciplines, prominently including golf. Lynn Stone, then the boss of Churchill Downs, was another good friend of King's.

Bill and his lovely wife, Doris, lived on the penthouse top floor of Louisville's tallest apartment house at the time, and from there he could oversee his promotions around Louisville. It was there one early spring day in 1973 that he invited me to make the Derby with him that year.

He drove his own car, and I thought he was going to drive directly into the clubhouse and park by a concession stand. He stopped a few feet short, and a parker - one of Bill's legion of friends and admirers - welcomed him with, "Hi, Mr. King. I'll take it from here," saying it with the same warmth as the cops at the Churchill entrance and all others en route. It turned out to be only the beginning of a very memorable day, capped of course by Big Red, who spoiled me for all Derbys that followed.

King knew all the major television executives in New York on a first-name basis, and in 1978, when he conceived the idea of the Kentucky Pacing Derby - briefly harness racing's richest race for 2-year-olds with a $200,000 purse at his pretty and compact little track - it was televised nationally on CBS as part of halftime entertainment during an NFL football game. That, too, was a King idea, and a good one. Bill called a horse race "the only complete sports event that can be shown in its entirety at halftime of a football game." It still is a great, but unused, idea today.

Like most busy men, he was impatient. Obsessively so.

His wife loved to travel and decided one year that she would like to visit Rome. A practical man, Bill agreed, and they flew to Italy.

He rented a chauffeured car, and they headed for St. Peter's Basilica. Doris, swept away by the grandeur of the sight, gushed, "World famous St. Peter's, Bill. I never expected to see it in my lifetime. Thanks again, honey, for bringing me. Let's go."

As the chauffeur closed the car door behind her and Doris headed breathlessly for the entrance, King lowered his voice and said to the driver, "Keep the motor running."