05/17/2002 12:00AM

Not even Napoleon was so honored


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It has been 20 years since Jim Murray took serious offense at the thought of Gato del Sol passing the Preakness after winning the Kentucky Derby.

If the horse doesn't want another tough race, why don't they just ship him to Juarez and shop for a price?" Murray wrote in his syndicated column.

"Is he a championship horse - or a common plater? Is it Gato del Sol or Pollo del Sol?"

The zinger still lingers. Murray had that kind of effect. To be sliced and diced by Murray's pen always set a person, place, or thing distinctly apart from the common crowd. You had to do something very good, very bad, or just plain strange to get his juices flowing. From the infield fly rule to racism at the Masters - and every bounce in between - nothing escaped his sardonic view of sports as theater of the absurd.

Horse racing provided Murray with more material than he could handle. He was a diehard fan, with eyes wide open to its hypocrites as well as its heroes. As for the Thoroughbred animal, don't get him started:

"They never have to do anything real horses have to do - pull a plow, cut a cow, ride in a battle, lead a parade. They work about two minutes a week. The rest of the time they sleep and eat. They also sulk, jump shadows, bite, kick, and get all lathered up when they're called upon to do something."

To Murray, the Kentucky Derby was a great contradiction. "There are those who say the Derby is just a horse race," he wrote years ago. "But there are those who say the Taj Mahal is just a building - Elizabeth Taylor is a woman. There's a little more to it than that."

But then, "A Kentucky Derby is not only too early in the career, it's too early in the year. It has been won by a lot of horses who are just better than claiming horses. It has been lost by a lot of horses who were too good to have that fate. Native Dancer comes to mind. Gallant Man. Damascus. Bold Ruler."

Murray called the Triple Crown "harder to win than a crap game on the waterfront, or a fight with your wife, and any horse who wins it immediately becomes Babe Ruth." In his Thanksgiving column of 1973, Murray listed Secretariat among the things for which he was thankful, "But I wish he had to keep working for a living like the rest of us. Early retirement might be okay - but at age 3?!"

He described the contest between horse and rider as "the most uneven since the Christians and the lions." Jockeys were among his favorite athletes.

On Gary Stevens: "He sits on a horse the way the horse should be sat upon. Not scratching all over the place like a Hartack or a Ycaza. Not busting through a wall of horses like a cossack. Looking for the hole, saving the run for the psychological moment. He has the concentration of a diamond-cutter, the peripheral vision of an NFL quarterback."

On Eddie Arcaro: "They wrote poems about Earl Sande, they built statues to Sonny Workman, but when a trainer had a good horse, he wanted Eddie Arcaro on him. What Vince Lombardi was to football players, Michelangelo to statues, Eddie Arcaro was to horses. They ran for him or else."

On Bill Shoemaker: "When maestro Shoemaker sits down to play his horse, he gets the 'Moonlight Sonata.' Lesser riders get 'Chopsticks.' Shoemaker gives a recital, an artist in the saddle, Horowitz in a concerto, Koufax in a no-hitter, Hepburn playing a schoolmarm. He does what he does without conscious effort."

On Chris McCarron: "Charles Dickens would have loved Chris McCarron. So would Walt Disney. Eyes as blue as Galway Bay, framed by ringlets of flame-red hair, he looked like a cross between Oliver Twist and Bambi."

In 1988, Murray was inducted into the sportswriters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was presented with the Times Mirror Life Time Achievement Award after 37 years with the Los Angeles Times. In August of 1998, Murray died, but not before he wrote one last piece, celebrating the victory of Free House in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

"He won so easily, McCarron should have brought a book. He rode him like the Wilshire bus."

It always felt right that the last sporting event of Jim Murray's life was a horse race. It is also appropriate that on Sunday, at Hollywood Park, the Jim Murray Handicap will be presented once again. It was first run in 1990, the same year Murray won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Sometimes it was hard to tell which meant more.

"Napoleon got a brandy," he wrote. "Caesar got a salad. They named a tank after Sherman, furniture after Louis XIV, a candy bar after Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, and toast after Madame Melba. McKinley got a mountain.

"Big deal! Know what I've got named after me? A horse race!"