08/03/2001 12:00AM

For this occasion, no curmudgeon


DEL MAR, Calif. - Frank Deford's earliest recollection of a horse race is cloaked in shades of gray. Native Dancer gray.

It was on May 23, 1953, that Deford and his father attended the Preakness as guests of a Pimlico boxholder. Young Frank had been to a few of the Maryland racing fairs before that particular day. At least, that's what he was told. His memory, though, chose to imprint otherwise, leaving Deford with the indelible recollection of Native Dancer scudding past the stands as his first racing moment.

This is not fair, but it figures. While the rest of us get claimers at Cahokia or rainy days at Keystone as our nascent horse racing impressions, only a guy like Deford can get away with dropping a name like the Gray Ghost of Sagamore as his inspirational touchstone.

For those who have ceased to read - or even listen - Deford is the celebrated writer whose best work has appeared between the covers of Sports Illustrated. There also have been 11 books, a correspondent's gig with HBO's RealSports, a couple of screenplays, and weekly commentaries on National Public Radio.

His awards are too numerous to list. Besides, he is a modest man, and such an indulgent recitation of his accomplishments would only make him blush. Suffice to say that he wins an Eclipse Award just about every time he writes something about the game. He is also in the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters, along with Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, and Jim Murray. Fair company.

On Monday in Saratoga Springs, at the induction ceremonies of the Racing Hall of Fame, Deford will deliver the keynote address to an audience that will be there to celebrate the careers of Earlie Fires, Richard Mandella, Tom Smith, Holy Bull, Paseana, and Maskette. Deford sheepishly confessed that he has yet to write anything extensive about any of them. Their loss.

"I thought, what a wonderful opportunity," Deford said Friday from his home in Connecticut. "It's kind of like singing for my supper. Come up, give a little speech, and I get a couple days in Saratoga. Not a bad trade-off."

Deford has maintained his racing fan status throughout a career that has embraced nearly every recognized form of fun and games. Sometimes the games are not so much fun, and when that happens, Deford slips into his Sports Curmudgeon alter-ego to rail against the excesses and perversions of the modern sports age.

Whether it is the aesthetically repulsive spread of tattoos upon the athletic torso, or the unhealthy state of Yankee-dominated baseball, the Curmudgeon spares no target. Consider this, from a June 1999 commentary: "Having attained a certain age, here are the four things in life that I positively know will never work: 1) Communism, 2) Anything that says "easy-off" - especially if it is spelled "E-Z.", 3) Giving a small boy a goldfish to take care of, and 4) College athletics played by college students."

Turning to his own profession, Deford was both reassured and alarmed at a survey that reported more than half the males studying broadcast journalism wanted to go into sports.

This, he stated, ". . . has the same ring to it as if we learned that more than half the males in medical school wanted to concentrate on cosmetic surgery."

Then there is my favorite comment about a certain West Coast city, whose professional sports franchises failed to win a single championship in the entire decade of the 1990's:

"Reading the standings in Los Angeles," he wrote, "is like reading the athletic version of Angela's Ashes."

And do not think for a moment that horse racing is spared, beginning with the most revered spectacle in the game:

"Quaint old Churchill Downs is managed so beautifully that it makes it all the more ironic and inexcusable that the race itself, the Run for the Roses, has become more of an equine Ring Around the Rosie," he wrote. "Twenty horses compete, turning it into a rodeo, bumper cars, a Derby of demolition."

Deford has promised to leave the Sports Curmudgeon behind when he addresses the Racing Hall of Fame. His affection for the game is already on record, particularly his affinity for jockeys and their work. He won Eclipse Awards for stories about Tony DeSpirito, in 1975, and Angel Cordero, in 1984.

"Of all athletes, I think I've always had the greatest admiration for jockeys," he wrote. "It's glamorous, of course, but it's dangerous."

"I think the fact that I'm 6-4 plays a big part in my attraction to jockeys, and what they can do," Deford said. "I never forget that when a horse falls, somebody falls off the horse."

Nobody gets hurt on Monday at the Hall of Fame, though. Deford is looking forward to a return to the heart of the racing game.

"I'm looking at a picture here on my desk here of my wife and I at the races in Ireland," he said, almost wistfully. "I've been the prodigal son. So I'm coming back into the fold. And I'm delighted."