05/19/2005 11:00PM

Life that reads like a tall tale

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Sunday's Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes at Hollywood Park is a quiet little race for 2-year-old colts and geldings that celebrates the legacy of an unsung giant.

In his heyday, Willard Lee Proctor was a straight-shooting, hard-drinking, Depression-era Texas refugee who, thank goodness, fought on our side during World War II. He trained his horses as if they were his own, which they sometimes were, but mostly they belonged to men and women who could cut through Proctor's coarse cloth to the heart of a true horseman beneath.

Proctor suffered no fools. He raged at sloth. His idea of a day's work included both dawn and dusk. Proctor's barns wore fresh paint and sharp creases long before D. Wayne Lukas discovered his first bucket of whitewash. His horses, in their stalls, were unhaltered and fed low to the ground. The shed row paths were raked in the classic herringbone pattern, and the help was soft-spoken around the animals. Or else.

How independent was Proctor? In 1968 he did the unthinkable, and turned down Bull Hancock's offer to train the Claiborne Farm stable in New York. Hancock was dumbfounded, but Proctor held his ground. He thought California would be a better place to raise his young family.

Proctor spent the last half of his career in California. Lucky California. At the races he was all business in his snap-brimmed hat, coat and tie, a man from an era in which you dressed when exposed to the public. Evenings were reserved for the Cockatoo Inn or the Talk o' the Town, where Proctor and Charlie Whittingham would hold court, buy rounds, and swap golden lies.

The truth was ripe enough. There were Army rodeos in Australia, wild times in the Midwest working the starting gate, and success with stakes winners like Woozem, Gallant Romeo, Maris, and Swoonen. In 1972, Proctor won the most famous California match race since Seabiscuit and Ligaroti when he trained Convenience to beat Typecast in their $250,000 winner-take-all at Hollywood Park. Horses like Table Hands, Uniformity, The Carpenter, Repriced, Right Honorable, Swear, Summer Time Guy, and Lovlier Linda kept reminding people why Proctor's runners never could be ignored.

"I've never known anyone who demands so much attention with so little effort," Proctor's friend and fellow trainer Stanley Rieser noted years ago. "I've been out to California, and I see how he affects these guys. He'll be sitting on his pony, and you'd think they were talking to the president."

In the end, Proctor's philosophy was simple: The horse first, everything else follows. Proctor bristled at the idea that anything was more important than the animal. Fans, front office, shareholders, feed man, jockeys, owners, and trainers - as far as he was concerned, they all owed both profits and pleasures to the horse.

On May 30, the newest members of the Racing Hall of Fame will be announced in Saratoga Springs. Don't look for Proctor's name on the list, since the rules allow only one trainer to be elected each year, and this time around it is a good bet that Nick Zito will get the nod.

Proctor's devoted fans can take some consolation in the fact that he remains in good company. When it comes to the Hall of Fame, there are way too many great trainers on the outside looking in. Californians wonder if there will ever be room for Bob Wheeler, Buster Millerick, or Mel Stute. The Mid-Atlantic region is still waiting for Buddy Raines, Dale Baird, King Leatherbury, and Richard Dutrow to be honored. Believe it or not, Carl Hanford is not in the Hall of Fame, which means Kelso must have trained himself to be Horse of the Year . . . for five years in a row!

If he gets the chance this summer at the Hall of Fame, Zito is just the kind of guy who would pay homage to those worthy trainers not enshrined, whose names are in jeopardy of being forgotten. For what it's worth, Proctor is a member of the Texas Racing Hall of Fame, alongside such native sons as Bill Shoemaker, Jerry Bailey, Max Hirsch, and Cash Asmussen.

In the meantime, at least the Proctor family can point to the race at Hollywood Park that carries his name. Proctor was 83 when he died in 1998 while feeding a horse, leaving behind three sons (Hap and Tom became trainers), two daughters, and a slew of grandchildren who were the apple of their grandpa's eye. Young Sam was the first to break from the gate.

"A few years ago they gave Sam a special sweater with an emblem for his work in school," Proctor once recalled. "He said he felt funny about wearing it, so I told him to send it to me. I'd wear it."

There was no replacing Proctor, although any number of younger horsemen have tried to keep the flame alive. In the end, Proctor was an impossible act to follow, an American original who represented a level of horsemanship that required constant vigilance and unflinching principles. It also helped that he could back them up, as Reiser once recalled:

" 'Stanley,' he said, 'come with me a minute and hold my horse. I'm gonna hit somebody.' "

That was Proctor, ever ready to fight for what he thought was right, and always worried about his horse.