08/09/2012 2:06PM

Hovdey: Heroes are hard to find, harder to lose

Benoit & Associates
Pete Pedersen

Heroes serve a purpose, though one size does not fit all. Mine are mostly literary for the simple reason, I suppose, that it is natural to aim for even the loftiest of targets once you’ve settled on a certain path in life.

I lost three heroes from my living pantheon this week, making it a bad week by most standards but a good time to embrace the reasons they were there in the first place.

Robert Hughes was Australian, loud and as flamboyant as many of the artists he both loved and loathed as the longtime critic for Time magazine. His 1981 BBC series “The Shock of the New” raised the bar forever for those who fancied themselves perceptive observers of modern culture, while his books took the reader on bracing journeys to Barcelona, Sydney and Rome, as well as his adopted land in the monumental “American Visions.”

Writing with “precise and vivacious eloquence,” in the words of his friend and fellow critic Leon Wieseltier, Hughes was praised by contemporaries as “the most famous art critic in the world,” for what that’s worth. For me, he was always the most lyrical of writers who could say what needed to be said because – in historical terms – he knew where the bodies were buried, and how they got there. He was 74 and lived in a New York loft.

I signed on early for the long ride with Gore Vidal when I realized he was the guy who wrote “The Best Man,” both the play and screenplay. If there is a better political drama the floor will entertain nominations. Nominations closed.

With Vidal you got egg roll, and every other dish on the intelluctual menu, plus politics. When he ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in California, in 1982, he reasoned, “I don’t want it written on my tombstone that he always complained but he never did anything about it.” He lost, even with my vote.

As an historical novelist Vidal has few peers, as “Lincoln,” “Burr” and “1876” attest. As a media raconteur he could slice and dice the most formidable rivals. Little pieces of William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer still litter the studio floors where they clashed. As for his trenchant commentaries on America’s place in the world, let’s just say that history gets to decide if Vidal was on the right side of things after all. He died in Los Angeles and was 86.

Pete Pedersen, my third man of letters, would blanche at the idea of being tag-teamed in the same space as Hughes and Vidal. Pedersen knew the good stuff when he read it, but he was not a writer by trade – only by early inclination and necessity – and he lived his long life with a writer’s sensibility, always attuned to the good story, the romantic tale, the ironic twist.

This quality gave Pedersen a bullet-proof defense against the absurd extremes of his profession. As a racing steward, he was charged with a lot more than calling balls and strikes. The concerns that crossed his desk ranged from the deadly to the petty – cocaine positives, parking fines, financial fraud, brawls. Once, he and his fellow stewards had to deal with a stablehand who had sexually assaulted a goat.

“There’s no accounting for taste,” Pedersen said later with a straight face. “But the concern here is for the well-being of the goat.”

Pedersen knew the lot of the steward was to be criticized from all sides, sometimes all at once. To honor his retirement in July of 2005, Hollywood Park officials asked Pedersen to descend from the stewards’ stand and present the trophy for the Hollywood Gold Cup to the winning owner. He hesitated.

“I told them they were really taking a chance,” Pedersen said. “If I were shot there would be many suspects.”

The exaggeration was amusing, but wide of the mark. At the end of the day, Pedersen was one of those individuals who commanded respect because he treated others likewise. To Pete, it was a rare fellow who ever did anything wrong on purpose.

“Eddie Arcaro didn’t like officials much,” Pedersen once recalled. “But he said if you didn’t have them the jocks would go out and kill each other. 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.”

Pedersen celebrated his 92nd birthday this year on the Fourth of July. A few weeks later he fell on the walkway in front of his home in Arcadia, suffered a severe head injury and never regained consciousness. He will be laid to rest at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills, not far from the gravesites of Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Gene Autry, Jack Webb, and Buster Keaton. According to his family, Pedersen would want memorial donations to go in his name to a Thoroughbred retirement organization or a local animal shelter.

That’s fine, but first I need to come to terms with the fact my friend is gone. In retirement Pedersen was restless, a vital intellect. He read voraciously, fiddled with his archives, and vowed to learn how to surf the net. From time to time he’d write a piece for a trade publication, sharing anecdotes with the literary touch of a latter-day Red Smith. He would turn up at Clocker’s Corner, the Santa Anita morning hangout, if only to bask in the delight of shared memories with familiar faces. He’d make a regular pilgrimage to witness the Santa Anita Handicap, anonymous in the crowd until someone called out, “Pete!” and his cover was blown.

“What do you think, Pete?” he was asked on a March day in 2011 while the stewards were agonizing over their inquiry into Game On Dude’s narrow Handicap victory.

“It’s a tough one,” he replied, then allowed himself a grin. “I think I’m glad I’m down here instead of up there.”