02/15/2002 1:00AM

Racing's great arbiter gets his just due


ARCADIA, Calif. - Most of the people honored with an Eclipse Award of Merit either own racetracks, breed horses, or lord over large organizations that wield profound influence upon the racing game. Then there is Pete Pedersen.

This is a regular working stiff, a guy who punches in early and heads home when the whistle blows. At the age of 81, he gets paid a day's wage for a day's work, and he's expected to carry his load. Gratitude for a job well done is neither offered nor expected. His meager perks include a personal parking spot, a shared office, and the occasional nod of recognition. And the parking space is not that hot.

When Pedersen takes the stage Monday night at the Eclipse Awards Dinner in Miami, introduced as the respected senior steward of California racing, a veritable beacon of integrity, he will find his name listed among such past Award of Merit winners as Jack Dreyfus, Jimmy Kilroe, Paul Mellon, and Alfred Vanderbilt. Perhaps by then it will sink in.

"People have been congratulating me for weeks," Pedersen said Friday morning while relaxing on a bench between hearings at Santa Anita. "I remain mystified. I can only thank the people who put my name forward, and accept this as a representative of all racing officials."

Such humility tends to come naturally from Pedersen, who has never allowed his position to inflate the ego. Occasional reminders help.

"My wife once explained to a friend that I was a patrol judge working for the stewards," Pedersen recalled. "They wanted to know if I was a waiter or a cook."

And then there is the relentless stress of playing the disciplinarian. One can only guess how many jockeys have accused Pedersen of "never riding a horse," or how many trainers have wondered "who'd you ever train?" after the issuance of a stern ruling.

"Believe me," Pedersen said, "I have had to penalize scores and scores of 'innocent' people."

He said this with a rueful smile, the product of a lifetime going face to face with all manner of malcontents and petty transgressors that fill the stewards' docket every day. If the racetrack is a microcosm of the larger world, then the stewards serve as assistant principals, forced by the nature of their position to deal with people who can't seem to play well with others.

A native of Seattle, born on the Fourth of July, Pedersen came around at a time when stewards were held in a wide variety of regard. Some were feared, inspired by the frontier justice of Judge Roy Bean. Others were little more than rubber stamps for the racetracks that employed them. Pedersen was among an enlightened generation that suggested there might be a better way.

As one of the earliest leaders of the Society of North American Racing Officials, Pedersen worked closely with his Kentucky counterpart, Keene Daingerfield, to elevate the professionalism of stewards and generate a climate of reciprocity among jurisdictions. The fact that Daingerfield received an Award of Merit in 1985 reassures Pedersen that there is at least some precedent for his glaring public exposure Monday night.

"The best stewards are neither seen nor heard," Pedersen has said in the past. But he knows that is next to impossible.

"That's one of the problems of being an official," he said. "They're supposed to judge a game they can't play. We're not gamblers, so we don't think like a gambler thinks. At least, I try to, because you want to give the player every break."

Before he settled on a career as a steward, Pedersen did a little of everything around the racetrack, from walking hots ("at 25 cents a head, when I could get it"), to compiling a newspaper handicap. His colorful racetrack reminiscences have appeared often in racing publications.

Pedersen also has made history. As part of the three-man board of stewards presiding over the first running of the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, on Nov. 10, 1984, Pedersen can claim the first disqualification of a winner in a million-dollar Thoroughbred race, when Fran's Valentine was taken down in the Juvenile Fillies.

Later that same day, after the rough stretch run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Pedersen and his colleagues found themselves on camera during their difficult task of finding fault among Wild Again, Slew o' Gold, and Gate Dancer after they tangled near the end of the

$3 million race. Gate Dancer was DQ-ed from second to third, and Wild Again's victory stood.

"That's the day everything changed," Pedersen said. "Before that, there wasn't much in the way of national television, simulcast or otherwise. The switchboard put a call through, and some guy was screaming at me about the race. I asked where he was calling from - I thought he might have been downstairs in the Turf Club. 'Cleveland, Ohio,' he says. 'And that was the worst call I've ever seen!'

"It comes with the territory," Pedersen conceded, "and it's never easy. I've always said that if you could find a former jockey who also trained, had a law degree, and practiced equine medicine, you would have the perfect steward."

Sounds impossible, but it would be even harder to find another Pete Pedersen.