01/01/2008 1:00AM

A life of drama, on and off track


ARCADIA, Calif. - Lou Wolfson could have closed up shop on his Florida breeding operation the day after Affirmed was foaled, in February 1975, and no one would have argued. How do you improve on perfection?

By a Wolfson stallion out of a Wolfson mare, Affirmed was that rare prodigy whose talents blossomed with age. He was a brilliant champion at 2, a thoroughly tested Triple Crown winner at 3, and peerless at 4, when he took on all comers. In the 29 years since he retired, there has been no horse the equal of Affirmed, simply because no horse has been able to answer the daunting challenges of soundness, class, durability, and tenacity with such casual aplomb.

Little wonder, then, that nearly every obituary written this week marking Wolfson's death, a month shy of his 96th birthday, places the exploits of Affirmed high in the story. Wolfson's controversial, rags -to-riches career as industrialist, financier, sportsman, and philanthropist is entertaining enough. Stir in a racing icon like Affirmed, not to mention Wolfson's second marriage to real life racing princess Patrice Jacobs, and the plot becomes operatic, especially considering that Sunday marked their 35th wedding anniversary. For this, we would need Francis Coppola to direct.

In many respects, Affirmed represents a synthesis of the hallmarks by which Wolfson himself led his extraordinary life. Fitness and fair play, being in the right place at the right time, and then getting the jump on the opposition - that was Affirmed, and that was how Wolfson carried himself, with a strong streak of anti-establishment attitude thrown in for good measure.

Of course, Affirmed never tried to tell the reigning powers of racing how they should run the show, as Wolfson did on at least two landmark occasions. And although he was disqualified from victory after shouldering his way out of a high-speed conspiracy in the 1978 Travers, Affirmed never made the kind of malevolent enemies that put Wolfson in a federal prison for a nine-month stretch.

In the 1950s, Wolfson and his partners practically invented the corporate takeover and turnaround with such companies as Capitol Transit (the Washington, D.C., bus line he bought for $2.2 million and sold for $13.5 million) and the marine salvage and construction firm Merrritt-Chapman & Scott (turning an $8 million investment into a company worth $132 million). Earlier, Wolfson and his family parlayed a $275 pile of unwanted government procurement (read "junk") into $100,000 in seed money that eventually helped buy two shipyards for $4 million. They eventually sold for $10 million.

In addition, at one time or another Wolfson tried to buy Montgomery Ward, American Motors, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Washington Senators, and the Baltimore Colts. Thwarted in landing a major league franchise, he decided to build his own, turned to horse racing, and in 1958 founded Harbor View Farm in Ocala, Fla.

In 1960, Francis S. carried the flamingo pink and black Wolfson colors to victory in the Wood Memorial and the Dwyer. In 1963, Wolfson raced his first champion, Raise a Native, who blew the doors off his New York competition and was acclaimed best 2-year-old colt in the land. In 1965, Wolfson campaigned the bargain-priced gelding Roman Brother to a Horse of the Year title, at least on the poll that really counted, conducted by Daily Racing Form.

In April 1969 - just days before Raise a Native's son Majestic Prince won the Kentucky Derby for owner Frank McMahon - Wolfson entered a federal penitentiary near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to serve a nine-month stretch for charges related to a violation of a relatively obscure Securities and Exchange Commisison code. Essentially, the maverick entrepreneur was given the Martha Stewart treatment, suffering celebrity jail time for an offense usually punished by a fine.

In a biographical homage to his father, published in "The Backstretch" magazine in 2001, Steve Wolfson paints a portrait of contrasts. Louis Elwood Wolfson was the son of a Jewish Russian immigrant father, born in St. Louis and raised in Jacksonville, Fla. Wolfson was horrified by the redneck bigotry rampant in the Florida of the 1930s and demanded that his businesses reject any form of discrimination. Later, Wolfson became the bane of the East Coast WASP business establishment with his wheeling and dealing of stagnant, closely held companies.

Steve Wolfson describes his father as a "furtive philanthropist," spreading anonymous largesse to all manner of needy individuals and worthwhile causes, in addition to funding the construction of major hospital and educational facilities. He also details his father's well-documented frustration with the leaders of the racing industry, who seemed so oblivious to the changing trends in business of big-time sport.

Among Wolfson's recommendations, directed at racing's movers and shakers, were standardized drug testing, universal licensing, tax relief, improvement of backstretch conditions, the promotion of ontrack attendance, and the establishment of a national organization that would effectively represent all segments of the racing industry. In most cases, he was greeted with nods of acknowledgment and thanked for his efforts. He made those suggestions nearly 42 years ago. So how they doin', Lou?

In more recent years, Alzheimer's robbed racing of a singular voice and Wolfson's friends and family of the man they once knew. As Wolfson's health began to fail, his son found himself consulting the family rabbi on likely arrangements.

"That was three years ago," Steve Wolfson said, late Sunday night. "Somehow, he had the will and the strength to give us a little more time. And he seemed to save that last little piece of himself for Patrice. He was able to acknowledge the smallest things with tenderness. She called these last three years their long, sweet goodbye."