09/12/2003 12:00AM

Rasmussen, Muniz left their mark


POMONA, Calif. - It has been a week of remembrance, for obvious reasons. And while it is both appropriate and in some ways necessary to publicly revisit the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, it is also fitting to offer quiet tributes to those whose lives passed quietly after making a special mark.

So it's okay to crank up the Johnny Cash and the Warren Zevon, or have yourself a Charles Bronson film night (try "The Mechanic" or "Once Upon a Time in the West," but stay away from "Death Wish III").

The world of horse racing has suffered its own stern losses lately, names that may have appeared only in trade publications and agate type. These three giants, though, helped make the game a better place.

Leon Rasmussen had come to terms with his grim cancer diagnosis earlier this year when neither surgery nor treatments proved viable. Okay then, he said, I'm ready. "I'm nearly 89," he said. "And I've lived a wonderful life. How could I ask for more?"

Rasmussen's grace and style permeated his work, especially for Daily Racing Form. He was able to take the dry, by-the-numbers world of Thoroughbred breeding and breathe it full of life, teaching his readers the "whys" behind the mysteries of basic animal husbandry.

For Leon, the greatest gamble in racing was not the triple or the pick six. It was the unnatural selection of sire and dam, rolling the dice with their coupling, and then waiting three years for the results. Those breeders who took such risks earned his everlasting respect. He even became one of them.

Rasmussen searched through centuries of trial and error, adding his perspective to the discoveries of such breeding scholars as Bruce Lowe, Abram Hewitt, and Franco Varola. He was also a grand teller of tales, a noble partner on the links, and a gracious cocktail companion. His compilation of classic racing stories, "Treasures of the Bloodstock Breeders' Review," should be on the bookshelf of every racing fan.

Mervin Muniz was his own brand of racing treasure. Louisiana charm oozed from his every pore. He was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy who took very little credit, even when he deserved most of it.

That is why there were so many Mervin Muniz fans in racing, from one coast to the other. Muniz (say it right - "mew-NEEZ") became the heart and soul of the New Orleans sport, tirelessly representing his Fair Grounds with seductive patter that was nearly impossible to resist.

"I know y'all might find a bigger pot somewheres else," he'd say, slyly wooing a trainer for a stakes horse. "But we got a nice racing surface here, and I think you might find a couple pretty good places to eat."

Every racetrack should have a Mervin Muniz. And because they don't, a lot of tracks are in public relations trouble. In a racing world of increasingly corporate clones, Muniz perfected the people side of the horse business. He never went out of his way to do anyone a favor, or solve a problem, because that is how he defined his job.

Now that Muniz is gone - cancer took him, too - New Orleans racing will glow a little less brightly. And during Mardi Gras, when the floats of the Endymion krewe wind through the streets of the French Quarter, there will be one less glad hand tossing down the beads.

Every day was a parade for Sandpit. Crystal Brown, his constant morning companion, would indulge the grand chestnut with an hour's worth of training time, letting him wander the backstretch, stop and stare, and just be Sandpit.

This went on for more than four solid years, from late 1993 to early 1998, during which time Sandpit won $3.1 million and seven major stakes, racing from Los Angeles and New Jersey to Tokyo and Dubai. Four years of showing up every morning at the Richard Mandella stable and seeing that big, white mug hanging out of stall number one.

Sandpit's death last week, from liver cancer at the age of 14, hit the Mandella barn like a cheap shot to the gut. Mandella will forever remember the call he received from his wife, Randi, when Sandpit first arrived at their Bradbury property, near Santa Anita, after a trip from his native Brazil.

"That new horse just came in," Randi Mandella told her husband. "And, Richard, this is a real good-looking horse."

He was, no doubt. But it was at Arlington Park that Mandella discovered how much racing fans simply liked the idea of a horse like Sandpit.

Sandpit was there for his third try at the Arlington Million - he ended up finishing second twice - and by then he had a loyal Chicago following. One morning, while taking Sandpit through the paddock, Mandella noticed two men by the rail. One of them politely beckoned.

"He told me his son was blind," Mandella said, "but that he was a big fan of Sandpit and had followed him for years, and knew by reading and hearing about him just how beautiful he was. He said it would mean a lot to his son if he could just maybe touch his nose."

So Mandella led Sandpit to the rail, and the young man got his wish. Sandpit, by the way, loved every minute.