05/21/2001 12:00AM

A man who lived life to fullest


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - You know you've lived a good life when winning a Triple Crown race or a Breeders' Cup event isn't the best thing you've ever done.

Ben Rochelle, who owned half of Snow Chief and all of Very Subtle, literally danced his way around the world. Vaudeville, television, movies, the big rooms in Vegas - name the town and there is a good chance Rochelle kicked up his heels on the local stage. He was a physical, exuberant dancer, very much in the Gene Kelly mold, with an athlete's graceful ability to make the most difficult moves appear effortless.

In recent years, when Ben could no longer walk, he was still pounding the boards in his head, and in his heart. With his wife, Diane, at his side, Rochelle would share tales of a past laced with characters straight out of a Damon Runyon story, some of them so far-fetched that they just had to be true. . . .

Like the time he blew three weeks' pay at a casino in a single night, and word of it got back to his pal Virginia Hill, who just happened to be the girlfriend of Bugsy Siegel. Hill loved to dance with Rochelle, and Rochelle was the only guy with the courage to twirl with the mobster's girl. Let Diane Rochelle take it from there:

"So one night," she said, "not long after Benny lost his money, he was in the casino again, rolling dice, and Virginia walked in. Well, they knew when she walked in they had to get the dice she liked. She put $50 on the line. Ben threw a seven, then another one, and another one, and the money kept doubling until there was $1,600 out there. She gave Ben the money and said, 'Now you learn a lesson from that,' and walked out."

Then there was the time Rochelle spent touring with the USO in Europe during World War II. He played den mother to a group of eight showgirls, a situation that made him more than a little popular with the homesick GIs. But it wasn't all fun and games.

"After the war was over Ben saw Auschwitz," Diane recalled. "He found this little boy just wandering around with some rotten bread in a little basket. He was about 15 or 16. Both his parents were gone. Benny put him to work with the show, working the spotlight. Then he bribed some guy with two cases of Hershey bars and two cartons of cigarettes to let the boy come to America and try to find his aunt."

Diane Rochelle buried her husband last Monday, at Mount Sinai Cemetery in Los Angeles, after a 13-year relationship that began - where else? - at the racetrack. She was there with her father, a horse owner himself, and Rochelle was running Very Subtle in a stakes race at Hollywood Park.

"I was 36 at the time," Diane said. "He told me he was 69, but he was really going on 79. We didn't get married until he was in his 80's, but I never saw him as an old man. He was ageless to me."

At the time, the name Rochelle had transcended show biz and was appearing regularly in Thoroughbred racing headlines. Snow Chief won the 1986 Preakness Stakes and the 3-year-old championship, not to mention $3.3 million before he was through. Very Subtle, a powerful daughter of Hoist the Silver, shocked Groovy and the rest of the 1987 Breeders' Cup Sprint field at Hollywood Park. Both Snow Chief and Very Subtle were trained by Mel Stute.

Like good troopers, both runners took their show on the road. Snow Chief won major stakes in Los Angeles, Miami, and New Jersey. Very Subtle became one of the few California-based fillies to reproduce her form in the summer heat of Saratoga when she won the Test Stakes. At each stop, Rochelle was there, doing a victory soft shoe when his horses hit the wire.

Rochelle's most recent runner of note was Dianehill, trained by Brian Lynch. Dianehill finished second to Tranquility Lake in the Wilshire Handicap at Hollywood Park on April 29, and Rochelle was there to enjoy the view. One week later, he was hospitalized. He died on May 10 at the age of 91.

Diane Rochelle is determined to carry on with the breeding and racing interests that she and her husband have begun. Their new farm near Paso Robles is home to the 18-year-old Snow Chief and their mares, but the 9,000-square foot house will be a lot emptier now that Ben Rochelle is gone.

Memories are nice, but they only fill a few of the corners and some of the shelves.

"Let me tell you what we did when we got married," Diane began. "We went to Reno, because Ben knew old man Harrah - as in Harrah's Casinos - and we found something called the Heart of Reno Chapel. That's when Benny was still walking, and after the ceremony, when we were walking out, I looked over and big tears were running down his cheeks.

"I asked him, 'Honey, what are you crying about?' He said, 'I just married the love of my life.'"

In Ben Rochelle's life, that was saying a lot.