08/07/2002 12:00AM

Novel approach to retirement


DEL MAR, Calif. - There are only a few truly good reasons to sit down and write a book:

* A passionate social agenda.

* A therapeutic purging of inner demons.

* A yearning to serve one's literary muse.

* An unhealthy amount of free time.

John Russell can confess to a bit from each category. As a trainer with 40 years of experience, he has plenty of stories to tell. Some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. As a voracious reader of everything from Charles Hatton to John le Carre, he has exposed himself to the best in the world of letters. And yes, he has a bit of spare time on his hands.

Russell left the training game in 1995 after a career that spanned racing's most expansive era. After learning the ropes in England from his father, he ventured to America and signed on as a rider for Ben and Jimmy Jones. Russell was 21 when he took out his license in New York.

Before he was through, Russell had trained Susan's Girl, Majestic Light, Track Robbery, Precisionist, Intrepid Hero, Effervescing, and Tri Jet for all or part of their careers. His patrons included Fred Hooper, Bruce McNall, Tom Tatham, and the various members of the Phipps family.

Even though Russell left the business, he was still in love with his craft. It was the administrative nightmares of modern training that made going to the barn such a chore. So he walked briskly away, and at the age of 61 he was looking forward to a robust, active retirement with his wife, Diane, and their two teenage sons.

Then he became the butt of one of those cruel, cosmic jokes.

While innocently showering one day, Russell was stricken with a sudden muscle failure that left him crumpled and weak. The initial diagnosis blamed some type of viral infection, although later Russell grew to suspect it was the delayed neurological effects of a back injury sustained in a training accident several years earlier.

Whatever the cause, Russell found himself plunged into a world of physical rehabilitation. It took years for him to regain a semblance of full strength. Now, the only obvious lasting damage is to his right hand, which remains partly closed because of constricted muscles that never recovered. And while his tennis suffered terribly, it does not keep him from using his computer keyboard.

In the last few years, Russell has become a regular contributor to a number of racing publications, among them Backstretch Magazine and The Blood-Horse. He also tried his hand at few short stories, and now he has self-published (through the services of Xlibris) his first book, a racing mystery entitled "Dark Horses."

"There are too many 'how to' books out there about racing and not enough fiction," Russell said from his home in Del Mar, not far from the racetrack. "That's not to say I'm the one to fill the void. I just thought it would be fun."

Russell's hero in "Dark Horses" is a young English jockey named Fiona Kent. When not riding the occasional race, she spends most of the story in one sort of peril or another, most often as a result of her own stupefying gullibility or her questionable taste in men. There is murder, mayhem, horse-switching, and one interlude on a Caribbean island that seemed like another story altogether. The whole thing ends in a bloody shootout on board a luxury yacht somewhere on Long Island Sound. Typical racetrack stuff.

"I had a lot of time on my hands when I was recovering," Russell said. "You could say my mind was festering. But even while I was training, I observed that there was a lot of potential for corruption in the sport that thankfully didn't happen. I thought some of that might make for an entertaining story."

The idea of self-publishing is as old as cave drawings. There is a natural urge in some people to seek an audience, to mount the soapbox and hold forth, even if it is offered free of charge. The old-school professional writer would blanche at the idea of putting up personal cash to publish a manuscript. He'd rather starve first, and often did.

But times have changed, and desktop publishing has become a sophisticated alternative to the old vanity press. For his money, Russell not only got "Dark Horses" printed in a clean, handsome package, he also got it catalogued on both Amazon.com and the Barnes & Noble websites. Reviews are filtering in.

When all is said and read, "Dark Horses" is light entertainment, frustrating and involving by turns, with almost enough action and racetrack savvy to offset a forgettable cast of characters. For some, the best thing about "Dark Horses" will be the jacket photograph of a horse and rider in mysterious silhouette. The horse is Majestic Light, circa 1977, and the photographer is Diane Russell.

"It was a great experience, and I'd love to write another book," John Russell said. "Although I'm not sure I'll bring back Fiona."