07/15/2002 12:00AM

Howard Battle dead at 71


Howard Battle, who for nearly 30 years was the racing secretary at Keeneland before going into semi-retirement last year because of stomach cancer, died Sunday at his Lexington, Ky., home from complications of the disease. He was 71.

Battle worked as an official at U.S. racetracks for some 40 years, also serving brief stints as racing secretary at Churchill Downs in the 1980's and Saratoga in the 1990's. During his tenure at Keeneland the track rose to unprecedented prosperity; in recent years, it has been the perennial North American leader for daily purse levels by averaging more than $600,000 per program.

Battle was an advocate of top-class racing who seldom used extra races to supplement his condition books. An Army veteran, he employed a strict adherence to policy, usually closing entries well before what has become standard for many racing offices today. He also had a keen sense of humor that endeared him to many people throughout the industry.

Battle also served as Keeneland's track handicapper, and in the mid-1990's, weary of arguments concerning weight assignments, he rid Keeneland of all handicap stakes. Fixtures such as the Phoenix, Fayette and Ben Ali, which for decades had been run as handicaps, are now governed by allowance conditions.

Battle also painted, and many of his works were of horses. Battle earned a master's degree in fine arts from Notre Dame in 1958. He worked in advertising for several years after graduating, before settling on a career at the racetrack, first working at Detroit Race Course. Later, he made a year-round circuit that included such tracks as Arlington, Hialeah, and Monmouth.

Battle became Keeneland racing secretary in 1973. He underwent a serious operation for his cancer in January 2001, and although he was often at Keeneland during the latest race meet in April, his health had deteriorated in recent weeks. One of his longtime employees, Ben Huffman, assumed the job of racing secretary before the 2001 spring meet.

Battle, whose father, H.H. "Pete" Battle, was a trainer, served on many industry boards and committees, including the North American graded stakes committee, the Breeders' Cup selection committee, and the Experimental Free Handicap. He also served on international selection and grading committees.

Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said Battle "commanded the respect of his peers throughout the Thoroughbred community."

Keeneland director of racing Rogers Beasley said Battle was "one of the great racing officials of the century."

Battle is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Daisy; a son, Glenn; daughters Nanci and Terri; and eight grandchildren.

Visitation will be held Wednesday evening at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Rd. A funeral mass will be held Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Newman Center on Rose Lane.

Memorial contributions can be made to Hospice of the Blue Grass or the Markey Cancer Center.