01/30/2004 12:00AM

Reads like hustle, Charlie

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NEW YORK - For better or worse, America's best-known horseplayer is neither Andrew Beyer, nor Kent Meyer, the newly crowned Handicapper of the Year, nor Graham Stone, the South Dakotan who hit the Breeders' Cup Pick Six for $2.8 million. Any "Family Feud"-style survey of 100 Americans would probably yield a No. 1 answer of Pete Rose, whose recently published memoir, the best-seller "My Prison Without Bars," includes numerous references to racing and tales of the track.

Rose admits he didn't literally write the book, with that honor belonging to his as-told-to collaborator, an actor and screenwriter named Rick Hill. If Rose is half the horseplayer he claims to be, it's questionable whether he even read it. The racing sections are so riddled with mistakes that it makes you wonder how much of the rest of the book is on the level.

Rose's enthusiasm for racing seems genuine. He recalls growing up in Cincinnati and spending afternoons at River Downs and Latonia with his father.

"I'd never seen anything quite like the racetrack," Rose says. "The energy and the atmosphere fascinated me. . . . Everyone was equal at the track and everyone had something interesting to say - the jockeys, trainers, groomsmen, and exercise riders, and even the kids who mucked out the stalls."

Groomsmen? It's the first of many strange manglings of racetrack vernacular, like his later references to the importance of "pole position" in racing.

A few pages later, he recounts a big score that just doesn't quite add up. He says he likes to bet on big-name trainers and jockeys at big prices, and thus in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic he is drawn to Cat Thief at 19-1 because the trainer is D. Wayne Lukas (repeatedly spelled "Lucas" for the first half of the book). He also likes Budroyale (spelled "Bud Royale") and mentions that "John Orsino," presumably Joe Orseno, also had a horse in the race.

"I made up my mind that Cat Thief and Bud Royale were my one-two picks," Rose says. "If they actually finished one-two, it would make for a great exacta. . . . So, I bet $2,000 on my exacta and got ready to enjoy a great Breeder's Cup. . . . Cat Thief paid $40 to win, $20 to place and $16 to show."

Well, $41.20, $17, and $9.60, to be exact. Rose also refers to "the $700 exacta," which was actually $1,209.60 and which Rose, according to his earlier claim, would have had 1,000 times for over $1.2 million. You would think he might have mentioned that grand total or remembered the payoff if it had really happened, not that he would be the first horseplayer to add a zero or two to a tale of racetrack success.

On another day at the track, Rose makes a different kind of score:

"I usually carried binoculars to get a closer look at the horses," he writes. "But on one hot summer day in July, something else caught my attention. I noticed a really attractive young girl with long brown hair standing by the fence. She was dressed in a blue miniskirt and wearing plenty of jewelry - a real looker."

She becomes the first Mrs. Rose, who later punches the eventual second Mrs. Rose in the mouth, but we digress.

Rose makes some strange pronouncements about betting. He says that "Most folks will bet quinellas," a wager that accounts for well under 2 percent of the national handle. His pick six strategy is similarly hard to fathom: "Each horse has different odds, so the key is to pick at least one bullet horse - a sure-thing in each race."

Toward the end of his saga, Rose tries going into business with Lukas, finally spelling his name correctly but asserting that "The only race he hasn't won is the Belmont, but eventually he'll win that one as well." Lukas in fact has won four Belmonts, with Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Editor's Note, and Commendable.

Perhaps Rose's erratic racetrack memories are another function of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder he blames in part for his eventually out-of-control sports betting. Despite the inconsistencies, though, Rose is steadfast in his praise of racing as a thoroughly wholesome and legal form of entertainment. He's absolutely right when he complains that it's unfair for people to keep assailing his character because he enjoys a day at the races, as much of the mainstream media has done in the wake of the book's publication.

Whether Rose should be eligible to manage or coach again is a tricky issue, but there's no question he belongs in the Hall of Fame - as long as it's the one for baseball players, not for authors.