01/17/2008 12:00AM

Old pro writing it all down


Russ Harris is working on his memoirs, only he refuses to use that word even though, after half a century as a racing writer and public handicapper, he's got a right to call them anything he wants.

"A foreign correspondent for the New York Times once said that newspaper guys should never say they're writing their memoirs," Harris said. "It's too fancy a word. The only reason newspaper guys are famous is because of the people they meet, and I'm very much aware of that. At the same time, I think it was Grantland Rice who said our job is to go into the locker rooms and the clubhouse and give the fans a chance to know the kind of people they are."

Harris, an Ohio boy, turns 85 in April. He has plied his craft for major papers in New York, Miami, and Philadelphia, along with a number of horse racing trades. A simple computation puts him in the thick of just about every major racing story to unfold during the second half of the 20th century, from the heyday of Swaps and Nashua to the pair of late-inning Kentucky Derby wins by Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, another fellow who never let a little age get in the way.

It is Whittingham's stern countenance that stares down upon the Harris workspace from a photograph taken at Santa Anita Park.

"Charlie's my inspiration," Harris said. "Every time I get desperate and ready to jump off a cliff, I turn and look at that picture and think, 'What would Charlie do?'

"The last time I saw him I was visiting Santa Anita, not long before he died. I told him I was lucky I didn't meet him before the war, because when you joined the Marines I'd have joined with you, and I would have made a lousy Marine."

Whittingham died in 1999, the same year that the 76-year-old version of Russ Harris earned a doctorate in American history from Lehigh University. Such twilight degrees are unusual, and in the case of Harris it simply codified the existence of an intellect already on conspicuous display for decades. Still, Harris was out to make a point, beyond the affirmation of his undying interest in American history.

"I had an editor once compliment me on a story, telling me it wasn't bad - for a turf writer," Harris said. "I know a Ph.D on the racetrack is about as valuable as a winter coat in Miami in the summertime, but I wanted to prove that I could do it, and demonstrate that racing writers are not uneducated guys walking around with holes in their shoes."

Harris fondly recalls such press box contemporaries as Joe Agrella, Ed Comeford, Bob Hebert and Pat Lynch, none of them exactly dummies.

"My favorite of all was the guy at the Racing Form, Evan Shipman," Harris said. "I never thought of him as a handicapper - him and Hemingway used to play the horses for curious reasons, like which one would defecate first. But he was a great writer."

At home in St. Davids, not far from both Philadelphia and Valley Forge, Harris continues to do what he does very well, namely pick winners at New York racetracks for the New York Daily News. Even in the modern age of figure-driven handicapping, younger colleagues genuflect in his direction. Bill Finley, in a 2005 feature on ESPN.com, pointed out that Harris "no doubt, has picked more winners than anyone in the history of this game," while the Daily Racing Form's publisher and former New York Times racing writer Steven Crist calls Harris, simply, "The best public handicapper of all time."

"I still enjoy the battle," said Harris, who once swept a nine-race card at Belmont. "And I read that using your mind is the best way to combat approaching senility. I can remember the pitch I threw to a certain hitter 70 years ago, but there are times I can't remember my neighbor's name."

Harris was a top prep pitcher who played double-A ball, but whose chances at a career were dusted by German aggression. He is in the Greater Akron Baseball Hall of Fame, class of 2002, with the notation that he "played for New Havens, West Chevrolet (14-3 record, '41), East Akron Merchants '42, striking out 19 Borden Auto batters in his last game before joining the Army."

Baseball's loss was racing's gain. After the war, and following a stint as a professor, Harris got into the game, covering for an Ohio paper. That was that. The next 30 years were busy with people named Shoemaker, Hartack, Neloy, Arcaro, Stephens, Barrera, and, of course, Whittingham. More recently, Harris and his wife, Ethel, have become owners and breeders. They have a foal on the way any day, and another due come spring.

"I was an editorial writer and took a cut in pay to become a racing writer," Harris said. "Once you get in this business you can't get out."

Good thing, too, because Harris still has plenty of work to do. Those memoirs - er, recollections - aren't writing themselves, and there is Aqueduct on the inner track for his followers at the Daily News.

"I take it very seriously," Harris said. "If you're looking for hunches, don't come to me. I try to pick every race like it's the ninth, and I've just won eight."