08/13/2002 12:00AM

Last of the racing raconteurs

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TUCSON, Ariz. - A racing legend died in Maine last Friday, and an era died with him.

Tom Shehan fought the full championship distance, battling 12 rounds of cancer surgery before losing a split decision. He was 91, the last of the pre-television racing writers. In all those years he never forgot a face, a friend, a fact, a figure, or a fine story, and he delighted in spinning fascinating and funny yarns.

Tom had the gift of the literary Irish, a silver tongue and a golden pen, and all one needed to do to unleash them was to mention a name - any name of note - and then sit back, be regaled, and marvel at a memory that never faded with every racing encounter of 75 years' experience locked tightly inside.

New England scribe Rick Simonds, who wrote a feature on Shehan last spring, said he wouldn't exactly call what he did an interview. "When spending time with Shehan," he said, "you don't engage in discourse but rather brace yourself for a barrage of verbiage. Like confetti in a floor fan, the vitae and the vignettes spew forth, each more interesting than the previous, and each punctuated with a twinkle in his eye and an elfish smile on his lips."

Shehan had been a reporter in his native Massachusetts, and in New York, Florida, and Illinois. At one point he was writing articles for eight newspapers and four radio stations at the same time, and during the war he never stopped writing, doing pieces for Yank, the Army weekly, while serving in Africa, Italy, Japan, and Alaska.

Later he ghostwrote golf columns, and although he never played a round he wrote books, under others' names, including Ben Hogan's Power Golf and others on Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.

He played both sides of the aisle in horse racing, having been editor of the Thoroughbred Horseman's Journal and executive secretary of Harness Horsemen International. In track management, he was general manager or assistant GM at six tracks - Thoroughbred, harness, and greyhound - and he also served as a steward, presiding judge, race caller, publicist, and horsemen's rep. "I couldn't hold a job," he once said.

Shehan's father was a steeplechase rider, and Tom rode in horse shows as a young boy. He visited his first track on the Fourth of July in 1917, and never stopped for the next 85 years.

During his 15 years with The Horseman's Journal, the magazine's circulation went from 650 to 18,000. Shehan was a tough, aggressive, and uncompromising advocate of horsemen's rights, and his strongly expressed views did not bring universal praise. He was considered a hired gun by some, and was barred from Hollywood Park for leading a strike for higher purses. He once said, "You either like Tom Shehan or you don't, and it doesn't make much difference to me." He wrote a four-part history of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and ghosted columns for some of the country's leading sports writers. Many of them were good friends, including Grantland Rice, Dan Parker, Jimmy Cannon, and Red Smith, four of the very best.

Not long before he died, Tom wrote to apologize for what he called his "garrulous" ways. "When you get as old as I am," he said, "everything will remind you of a story." So he told me still another, about the renowned trainer Walter Cox, a man of great talent but few words, who didn't like owners who asked questions. One of them owned one of the best horses in the country, but when he arrived at Cox's stable all employees, including the groom, professed not to know where the horse was. The owner found Cox and asked, "Where's my horse?" Cox said, "I sold him." The owner, stunned, asked "What for?" And Cox said, "For $15,000 - $12,000 for you, and $3,000 for me."

Not much has changed in racing in that regard, except that Tom Shehan now is gone. I urged the editor of a trade magazine to run a feature on him earlier this year, and Tom was pleased. "All writers have strong egos," he wrote. "Some just control them better than others."

His ego always was under confident control, and I'm happy that he got to sniff the flowers while he still was here. I'm not sure that you can later on, and it was gratifying that he learned of the respect and tremendous admiration of his friends before he moved to higher ground.