01/16/2002 12:00AM

As rider or steward, Blum's been there

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.- He's been there.

When Florida state steward Walter Blum says the most difficult aspect of his job is watching horses break down and, sometimes, injuring their riders, he speaks from considerable personal experience. Blum rode for 23 years until his retirement in November 1975 - and won almost 4,400 races and was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1987.

Another aspect of his role as steward representing the State of Florida that is particularly troubling to Blum is his obligation to penalize a rider for an infraction of the rules when the infraction is a direct result of the rider's eagerness to win the race.

"You want to encourage the desire to win at every opportunity," Blum was saying the other day. "At the same time, racing's rules are important, too, and failure to uphold them could lead to chaos."

Blum, with 25 years at his post, is one of America's senior state stewards in point of service. Sam Boulmetis, state steward at the New Jersey tracks for 30 years, may be the leader in terms of tenure on the job. California's Pete Pedersen has been a steward for 47 years, a state steward for 24 of them. Kentucky's Bernie Hettel is another of the country's more experienced racing officials.

"When I first came to the stewards' stand," Blum recalled, "there was considerable agitation for uniform rules. Here it is now, a quarter of a century later, and uniform rules is still a major topic of conversation. We should have uniform rules, of course. Horsemen throughout the country should know that the rules they follow at home are the same rules they will face when they travel."

Blum is respectful of racing's rules as a steward, just as he was when he was riding. He was one of the best lead riders of his era and got a lot of run out of his mounts.

"There are some races that stand out in my memory," he said. "Winning the Belmont Stakes with Pass Catcher was a great thrill. Gun Bow gave me some moments I'll never forget, including his victory over Kelso in the Woodward Stakes after a great battle through the stretch, and another stretch duel in the Washington D.C. International won by Kelso."

Blum was aboard Mr. Prospector when that brilliant racehorse ran six furlongs in a record 1:07.80 at Gulfstream Park in 1973. And Blum was aboard Royal Beacon II in a never-to-be-forgotten renewal of the Atlantic City Handicap. Dedicate, an outstanding handicap star of the 1950's, was an odds-on favorite under Eddie Arcaro for this important feature. Royal Beacon II, an import, was a decided longshot, but his colorful owner, Sylvester Rich, told everyone who would listen that he dreamed of an upset.

Dedicate won the race handily but was disqualified for interference, and Royal Beacon's number went up. Blum was overjoyed with the major victory early in his career and used his 10 percent commission to buy a ring for his fiancee.

Following his retirement, Blum attended The Jockey Club school for officials in New York and then got a job as a paddock judge and entry clerk at Atlantic City Race Course. In 1976 he served as an association steward at Hialeah. He received a phone call from Dan Bradley, director of Florida's Pari-Mutuel Division, offering him the post as state steward. He has served with distinction.