08/26/2010 11:25AM

Jim Murray had one-liners, and a few winners

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Jim Murray’s favorite town wasn’t Louisville − he once started a column with the dateline “Lousyville” − but his favorite race was the Kentucky Derby.

A close second might have been the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covered several of the early Pacific Classics. The last column Murray wrote, about Free House’s win at Del Mar in 1998, was published on the day he died of a heart attack at age 78.

Murray and I were both assigned to cover the second running of the Pacific Classic in 1992. Five minutes before post, Murray came up to me in the press box and showed me his program.

“You know, I know enough about these horses that I’ve got an angle no matter who wins,” he said. “Except for Missionary Ridge. I know nothing about him. I’m going to bet five bucks on his nose. That will stop him [from winning].”

Missionary Ridge, longest shot in the field, won by 3 1/2 lengths. Murray’s bet was worth $127.50.

At the end of the day, I saw Murray still working on his column.

“You had a nice score,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, squinting through thick glasses at his keyboard. “But I wound up with a lousy column. I still don’t know much about Missionary Ridge.”

Free House wasn’t that much of a longshot the year he won. He was the third choice but still a blue-collar horse, a California-bred. He was the kind of horse who inspired many Murray columns.

“The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet,” Murray wrote after the race. “The ‘best friend’ got the girl in the Warner Bros. movie for a change. The sidekick saved the fort.”

Murray referred to the 4-year-old Free House as “the hard-luck champion of horse racing.”

“What did Free House do that turned him into a star?” he wrote. “Well, he got older. . . . A Kentucky Derby can be a crapshoot. Not a Pacific Classic. . . . Free House won [the Classic] so easily, jockey Chris McCarron should have brought a book. He rode him like the Wilshire bus.”

Murray closed his column by writing: “It’s nice to know that getting older has its flip side.”

Those were the last words Murray ever wrote. The night of the race, after we dined at different restaurants, we met by chance, with our wives, under a big moon in the parking lot of a hotel across the street from Del Mar. We rehashed the race and talked for about half an hour. Jim and Linda Murray went to the races at Del Mar the next day, then she drove them to their home in Bel-Air, in the ritzy suburbs of Los Angeles. The next morning, somebody at the paper called to say that Jim Murray had died the night before.