08/23/2003 12:00AM

A lasting pedigree influence


LAS VEGAS - On Aug. 15, the racing world lost one of its most important and eloquent pedigree experts when Leon Rasmussen died at the age of 88.

Rasmussen began writing for Daily Racing Form in 1950, and until he retired in 1987, his "Bloodlines" column was a staple for anyone interested in pedigrees and how they affected racing performance. Rasmussen was also a regular contributor to The Thoroughbred Record, and his witty observations of racing spanned nearly four decades.

Rasmussen was a proponent of the early work of Dr. Franco Varola's Dosage system, which modified the original version of the Dosage theory introduced by Col. J.J. Vuilliers early in the 19th century. Rasmussen was closely aligned with the current theory of Dosage because he introduced Steven Roman's series of articles on the subject in his "Bloodlines" column in 1981. Within one year, however, Rasmussen became disenchanted with this modern form of Dosage, and went back to the topic he truly believed in most: inbreeding to superior females, which resulted in the highest likelihood of producing a quality Thoroughbred.

Rasmussen did not originate the theory of inbreeding to superior females. The great breeders of the 20th century, such as Federico Tesio, Marcel Boussac, and Abram Hewitt, all advocated this selective pattern of inbreeding. But no one observed and wrote about it as much as Rasmussen, who recognized the monumental value of such inbreeding.

In 1994, Jack Werk, editor and publisher of Owner-Breeder magazine, named this form of inbreeding the "Rasmussen Factor," or "RF," mainly in an effort to eliminate the need of repeating the explanatory phrase, "inbreeding to superior female families through different individuals."

Rasmussen joined forces with pedigree scholar Rommy Faversham to publish the definitive book on this specific type of inbreeding. "Inbreeding to Superior Females" (Australian Bloodhorse Review, Sydney, Australia, 1999) was a painstaking labor of love for both Faversham and Rasmussen and was an unqualified success in Europe and Australia, where the RF is considered the most critical element in a pedigree.

Long before Faversham dedicated many years of his life to making the book a reality, he recognized that Rasmussen's place in racing history was secure, and he recently reflected on Rasmussen's contributions.

"Leon is responsible for introducing the art of pedigree analysis to several generations of American race fans," Faversham said. "Thanks to him, a lot more of us developed an understanding of a Thoroughbred's heritage which, to our delight, enhanced our handicapping skills, not to mention our overall appreciation of the game. On top of that, Leon Rasmussen was a truly wonderful guy to be around for all who knew him."

Rasmussen was always the consummate gentleman, and the one word that friends and colleagues used most to describe him was "classy."

Next to racing, golf was Rasmussen's passion. Socially, Rasmussen was active in many circles. His close friend Bob Clavenger, who worked for ABC television, noted that Rasmussen was "equally at home in the company of Europe's royalty as he was engineers from ABC."

Rasmussen was enamored with the pedigree of Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, and after visiting Charlie Whittingham's barn early in 1986, Rasmussen urged Clavenger to place a future wager on Ferdinand to win that year's Kentucky Derby. Under one of Bill Shoemaker's most memorable rides, Ferdinand won and paid $37.40, but Rasmussen and Clavenger had a futures ticket that was worth considerably more.

"Well, it was certainly one of the high points of my life," said Clavenger. "That future bet paid for a down payment of my house and I have Leon to thank for it."

Rasmussen was a longtime member of the Wilshire Country Club and frequently enjoyed playing host to numerous racing personalities, including Bill Shoemaker and Don Pierce.

"He was a great writer and I loved him," said Shoemaker. "He was also a pretty good golfer and we shared many memorable times together, both at the racetrack and on the golf course."

Pierce also recalled those times with great fondness. "He loved racing and he loved golf, but racing was always number one," Pierce said.

After years of correspondence by telephone and letters, Leon and I arranged to finally meet over lunch at Santa Anita in March 2002, along with Faversham. I was amazed that at age 87 his mind was still so sharp, and his recall of dates and events was mind-boggling.

It was only fitting that on the day of Rasmussen's death, a 3-year-old first-time starter named Cargo Ship won the last race on the Saratoga card. Cargo Ship is an example of the RF, intensely inbred to the remarkable broodmare Tamerett.

Leon Rasmussen will be remembered for his passion, humor and great wit, and it's probably no coincidence that he championed the importance of the female family, which he firmly believed was the key to racing class in the Thoroughbred.

After all, he was the epitome of class in the human.