07/25/2006 11:00PM

Nice run from Big Sky to Pacific


DEL MAR, Calif. - If you've been looking for someone to hold accountable for what you've been reading here, it's too late. Elvis has left the building.

The end came for for my dad - the man who put the pen in my hand - early Tuesday evening,

83 years, four months, and a few days after he hit the ground running in a dry, cold corner of Montana prairie land that went by the name of Outlook.

At least, that's what is says on his birth certificate, only he told everyone he was from nearby Plentywood, a real town with a marching band and a high school football team. He blew French horn and played both ways.

Dad did all the things you're supposed to do if you're raised on a hard-working Montana farm, which included getting off that farm as fast as he could, which he did, when he was barely 18. Before too long, he had the good sense to head straight for Southern California. And how about that - it fit him like a glove.

Except for this last bad patch with lung disease and those 18 months on a couple of godforsaken islands in the South Pacific, my dad had more than 80 good years. That's way more than anyone is ever guaranteed.

A whole bunch of them were spent at Del Mar, close to home, when my dad would shift into

festive mode with each racing season, and I'd start getting it from all sides. He didn't miss a dance.

"Hey, Hovdey, met your dad Orvil last night at Scalini's. Man, he's nothing like you. He really knows how to have a good time."

The truth stings, but there it is. I had somehow suppressed my father's raucous gene - the one that made him both a peerless land salesman and the life of any party - rendering his oldest son a wet blanket by comparison. But that was okay. He was here first. And let's face it - no Orv Hovdey, no horse racing for his boy.

The first time he took me to the races, it wasn't even with me in mind. My grandfather was in town - we lived in a St. Louis suburb called Webster Groves at the time - and grandpa was a voracious sports hound. When informed there was a racetrack across the river, we loaded all hands into the station wagon and lit out for Cahokia Downs, in East St. Louis. I remember only the lights, and horses like ghosts in the distance.

Back in California, where we really belonged, the romance of racing took hold. My dad tried hard to round out my sporting life with things like Game 3 of the 1963 World Series at Chavez Ravine, when we sat in the sun-fried first-base side of the second deck and watched Don Drysdale shut out Jim Bouton and the Yanks, 1-0, or the 1964 USC-Notre Dame game at the L.A. Coliseum, the day the refs robbed my Fighting Irish of both the game and the national title.

It was racing, though, that lit the real fire, and it was my dad who made sure we were at Hollywood Park to watch Native Diver beat Hill Rise and Colorado King in the 1965 Gold Cup, and at Santa Anita for three straight runnings of the Strub, beginning with Bold Bidder's 1 1/4-mile track record and ending with Most Host's unconscionable upset of Damascus. I remember being very quiet, all the way home.

The night before our racing excursions, my dad would drive me to this seedy flophouse of a hotel in downtown Anaheim, and keep the motor running while I darted inside to buy a Racing Form.

In those days, the Form had a perforated top, sealed for our protection. And even though my dad taught me how to bunt, type, change oil and solder, he left the opening of the Racing Form to my own imagination. (For the record, I tried scissors, a carving knife, and eventually the karate hand-chop before I learned the proper method, witnessed for the first time working in my new job at Santa Anita when Jeff Tufts, one of my earliest mentors, casually opened the Form to its midpoint and pulled, deftly ripping the perforation as if he were unzipping a jacket. It was a move worthy of Manolete.)

Eventually, my dad got the bug real bad and bought a few horses of his own. It wasn't the actual racing that jazzed him, though. It was being around the horses, and the people who were drawn to the game. Anyway, his horses were mostly slow, but he managed to win a race, enough evidence alone to make a case for trainers Lewis Cenicola and Bill Delia to be given a special place in the Hall of Fame.

At the end, when my dad's lungs were shot and his kidneys were on their way to ruined, the only thing left to do was give him the reports from Del Mar's opening week and relay the sights and sounds of his favorite track.

I rigged him up with a set of headphones and played him "Rhapsody in Blue" and Hawaiian ballads - like Iz singing "Kaulana Kawaihae" - then read him some of his favorite Hemingway, but not "My Old Man," a racing story that ends badly, but "Big Two-Hearted River: Part I" instead, because it ends with Nick Adams cozy in his tent under the pine trees near the stream, his belly full of coffee and spaghetti and beans, curled up under his blanket and ready to sleep.