04/09/2003 12:00AM

A long life poring over pedigrees


ARCADIA, Calif. - More than 50 years ago, Leon Rasmussen set about the task of explaining the inexplicable. He was determined - through observation, quantification, and inexhaustible research - to discover patterns in the breeding of Thoroughbreds that made some of them faster than others.

The quest made sense. The mating of Thoroughbreds is the longest-running genetic experiment in the civilized world. Empirical evidence abounds, with detailed records providing curious scholars with plenty of ammunition.

Rasmussen was not the first to pursue such a grail - Bruce Lowe, Abram Hewitt, and Franco Varola were famous early pioneers - but he was by far the most widely read, simply because what he wrote appeared in the pages of Daily Racing Form.

Until his retirement in 1987, at the age of 72, Rasmussen's "Bloodlines" column was the anchor of the Form's page 2. Only Rasmussen could render the commingling of Thoroughbred DNA so thoroughly entertaining, adding an occasional Paul Dean twist to his tales - "And that little filly grew up to be Mumtaz Mahal."

Granted, it may have sounded to many readers like Cal Tech nerd-speak, replete with formulas and diagrams and wry asides about the worrisome preponderance of brilliant influences. At the end of the day, however, Rasmussen was trying to do for the Thoroughbred breeder exactly what Andy Beyer, Tom Ainslie, Steve Davidowitz, and Jim Quinn have tried to do for the Thoroughbred gambler.

Rasmussen was attempting to develop a formula that would be accessible to anyone, just as Beyer and company have sought to quantify the mysteries of picking winners, thereby eliminating any reliance on inside information. It was Rasmussen's feeling that successful breeding did not have to be exclusively the preserve of the rich and landed, restricted to only those who could afford to breed the best to the best. He wanted to offer a way that the breeding of a good racehorse could be "a game everyone could play."

At this point, there are sure to be friends and fans of Rasmussen who are bracing for bad news. Is this an obituary or what? Did he drive his golf cart into an arroyo at Wilshire Country Club, or disappear into that trap guarding the 10th?

Leon still can be found amidst his stacks of pedigrees and volumes of racing lore in his home near L.A.'s Griffith Park. He still is involved in the Esprit de Corps racing partnership, owners of the consistent turf sprinter Nanogram and his dam, Nannetta, the 1994 Cal Cup Distaff winner. And he is still very much on top of the business.

He is also, sad to say, fighting what he describes as an endgame with cancer discovered in a lymph node. Radiation rendered him too sick to continue treatments. Recent surgery failed to excavate all the malignant tissue. And so he is home with Erna, his wife of 42 years, his thoughts alternating between the longshot of a reprieve and the sure thing of a life well lived.

Rasmussen was born in Texas and raised near Seattle, but in truth he has been a citizen of the racing world. He began his career in Los Angeles with "Screen Guide," covering Hollywood, then switched to Daily Racing Form, a sister publication. After a stint as a navigator in the Air Transport Command during World War II (he kept his duffel crammed with Racing Forms to read on long flights), he returned to L.A. and dove deeply into horse racing.

Once established as an authoritative voice, Rasmussen became a welcomed guest and raconteur, as comfortable in the company of Charlie Whittingham or Laz Barrera as he was with Vincent O'Brien, the Aga Khan, or Madame Tesio herself, widow of the man who bred Ribot.

In retirement, Rasmussen has continued to make a mark. Occasionally, his byline would pop up in an industry publication. He edited a priceless collection of colorful lore from the "British Bloodstock Breeders Review" that should be required reading for racing fans.

Then, in 1999, Rasmussen published his magnum opus, "Inbreeding to Superior Females," with colleague and co-author Romy Faversham. The 500-page volume has become a valuable tool for serious students of bloodstock breeding throughout the Thoroughbred world.

Even better, Rasmussen is no ivory tower egghead. He has put his theories into practice. Working from a journalist's budget, he teamed with partners to breed a number of solid runners, including the Malibu Stakes winner Apollo, now standing at stud in California.

"The book was a sellout," Rasmussen said. A run of about 2,200 copies was printed by an Australian publisher. "You should see the letters I've gotten from people, all over the U.S., Canada, South America, South Africa. It's still the greatest way to breed a racehorse."

As for his current condition, Rasmussen seems determined to remain philosophical.

"I have no idea how long it will take to finish me off, whether it's a few months or what," Rasmussen said this week. "But, hell, I'm nearly 89, so I can't complain too much. And when I've had all this time to think about what a wonderful life I've had, I'm not too unhappy."