02/27/2008 12:00AM

No denying Kilroe was here


ARCADIA, Calif. - If a track is going to name a major race for someone, that name had better stand the test of time. The last thing you want is a chorus of "Who was that?" when a running comes around.

And yet, as generations ensue, memories become highly selective, and even then they are rarely exercised with discipline. Most racing fans probably would guess, for instance, that the Derby was named for a hat and the Belmont was named for the track. The Withers? Easy, that's part of a horse.

When it comes to remembering the man behind the $300,000 Kilroe Mile, to be run on Saturday along with the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, posterity has an edge. Reminders are never far from the surface.

Frank Eugene Kilroe, born in 1912, was smart enough to attend Columbia University in New York at the age of 14 and earn his bachelor of arts at 18. Later, he was kind enough to share those smarts with horse racing, interrupted only by a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II that ended in Austria, when he was attached to military intelligence and charged with sorting through the horrors of Nazi prison camps. After that, a fuss from a trainer over a 130-pound assignment must have been downright uplifting.

By the end of his career, cut short by a disabling stroke in 1989, Kilroe had steered the racing programs of New York and California to giddy heights. The hallmark of the Kilroe imprint was an emphasis on quality racing, nourished by a sensible progression of distance and value. He ran a tight ship and protected his racing domain from meddling by other departments. He nurtured talent, both frontside and backside, and was rightly proud of the accomplishments of disciples. He died in November of 1996.

Fortunately, Kilroe left behind a wealth of written wisdom and graceful prose, composed and delivered over four decades at the top of the game. As a young man, fresh from earning his masters, he began writing deft, chatty short stories for the cream of New York's literary magazines, including Collier's and Liberty, bearing titles like "The Golden Touch" and "Hollow Victory." Not surprisingly, many of them included a racetrack angle. Here is a passage from Kilroe's "Three-Legged Bowboy":

"He'd meant it to sound authoritative, but Freddy didn't look convinced. As he threw the jockey up and watched Jake swing the colt out into his position in the post parade, what should have been the anticipatory glow of victory within him felt more like a bad hamburger. Only Luke seemed undisturbed by the situation. The others in the parade strained against the halters their grooms held, their eyes big with excitement, and two of the washy ones dripped sweat like water from a scraper. Old Jake and Luke looked more like the two contestants at the finish of a man-against-horse cross-country race, looking for a place to lay the body down."

Other than the Kilroe Mile, there are no tangible memorials to the man who helped put Santa Anita on the map, no bronze bust in the paddock, no engraving on the marble fountain or grandstand facade. There is enough, though, for a timelessly quotable Kilroe, which should be required reading for anyone who pretends to care about the game.

For example, on the inability of the sport to row in the same direction:

"Our problem is that, although we like to refer to ourselves as an industry, we do not function as one. The rule of survival of the fittest is most appealing to the fittest."

Or this, on the proliferation and dilution of the breed:

"It would be difficult to breed a horse so bad that there is not a place in some racing program to suit him, but that does not seem to keep a lot of people from trying."

And this, on pointing the finger for racing's ills:

"The credit for most of the debasement of racing against which we should be struggling goes to us."

"Racing Thoroughbreds began as a sport to be enjoyed as a magnificent experiment in controlled breeding," Kilroe insisted, more then once. "It was never intended either as an arena for power politics or purely an aid to hard-put state treasuries."

Among the talented young horsemen cultivated by Kilroe was Neil Drysdale, who witnessed the man from afar while an assistant in New York. In the early 1970's, Drysdale migrated West to work for Charlie Whittingham.

"Not only was he very instrumental in developing the racing in New York, he was the one who brought racing in Southern California to the fore, making it a cohesive circuit," Drysdale said of Kilroe. "He emphasized quality, and he recognized that, apart from the betting, there was nothing more important than the owners of the horses. His contribution to racing in this era is inestimable."

Kilroe also got Drysdale his first job as a head trainer, for Texas oilman Corbin Robertson. Drysdale took it from there, all the way to the Hall of Fame. One thing lacking in his portfolio, however, is a victory in the Kilroe Mile, which he will try to rectify on Saturday with the return of the Clement Hirsch Memorial winner Artiste Royal.

"He was just so encouraging to everybody," Drysdale said. "To tell you the truth, I would dearly welcome a trophy with his name on it."