02/13/2004 1:00AM

From roses to Rose Garden


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is probably a stretch to mix presidential politics with the isolated world of Thoroughbred racing. But since this weekend celebrates Presidents' Day - along with the February birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and William Henry Harrison - the historical reach is worth a try.

George W. Bush was last seen at a racetrack while on his way to the Republican nomination when he hit Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week in the year 2000. Vice President Al Gore attended the 1999 Derby, but he was a no-show in 2000, which apparently made the difference. Bush beat Gore in Kentucky with 57 percent of the vote.

On a campaign swing to California in September 2000, Bush stumped the L.A. County Fair crowd at Fairplex Park on the opening day of the 2 1/2-week season. Bush did not stick around for the racing, though, and that was a shame, because he missed a bang-up effort by This Tune Can Hum to win the Foothill Stakes, and Martin Pedroza bagged a triple.

Horse racing always hovered in the background of the Bill Clinton presidency. After all, the man was raised in Hot Springs, in the shadow of Oaklawn Park, and his mother, Virginia Kelley, was a hard-core horseplayer from way back. Ron McAnally has winner's circle photos from the Arkansas Derby victories of Olympio and Silver Ending, standing alongside the young Gov. Clinton.

Racing and the presidency were commingled from the beginning of the republic. A 1761 newspaper report included in William H.P. Robertson's "History of Horse Racing in America" records that a Mr. George Washington, age 29 at the time, served as an official of the Thoroughbred racing meeting at Alexandria, Va.

Twenty-seven years and one revolution later, when Washington was on the threshold of his first term as the first president, he sold his prized racehorse Magnolia to Col. Light Horse Harry Lee for 5,000 acres of land in what was to become known as the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Legend has it that Magnolia continued to race for Lee, and that one day at Alexandria he lost to a horse owned by Thomas Jefferson.

For all his apparent love of the game, Washington was no more than a dabbler when compared to Andrew Jackson's involvement in racing.

In the early 1800's, Jackson was a driving force in the establishment of Tennessee breeding and racing. Before winning the Battle of New Orleans and becoming the seventh president, Jackson was a founder of Nashville's Clover Bottom Race Course. He trained his own horses and put up his money, competing in fabled matches with Truxton, Greyhound, and Pacolet. Historian Robertson notes:

"When he later became President it was no secret that Jackson maintained a racing stable in Washington, although technically the horses were listed as belonging to Major A.J. Donelson, his private secretary."

As president, Jackson's idea of recreation was heading to the stables and personally training his horses. These days, our presidents jog.

Richard Nixon has been the only sitting president to attend a major racing event, when he showed up at the 1969 Kentucky Derby to watch the victory by Majestic Prince. Harry Truman attended a Kentucky Derby while he was vice president. Lyndon Johnson showed up on Derby Day in 1952 as a Texas senator. In 1983, Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush was joined for a rainy Derby by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

According to Churchill Downs's official history, "No other president has witnessed more Derbys than Ford. Beginning in 1977, Ford and his wife Betty attended almost every Derby for ten years as guests of longtime friend John Galbreath, a former Churchill Downs chairman of the board."

It was Ronald Reagan, however, who was a 20th century throwback to such presidential horsemen as Washington and Jackson. No modern president threw a leg over a saddle more often than Reagan, and it is probably safe to say that he was the only president of the United States who was also a former member of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association.

Richard Stone Reeves, the renowned equine artist, can attest to Reagan's affinity for the game. Not long after Reagan entered the White House, his personal secretary put in a call to Reeves with a special request.

"The president was going to England on a state visit, and he wanted to present Queen Elizabeth with a copy of a limited-edition book I did called 'The Golden Post,' " Reeves said this week from his home on Long Island, N.Y. "He asked if I'd do a little sketch in the front of the book, of one of the queen's horses, if possible."

Reeves chose Highclere, the queen's classic-winning filly of 1974. It must have been a hit, because he has a thank-you note from Nancy Reagan to prove it.

Reeves, who turns 85 this year, remains the standard by which all living sporting artists are judged. He continues to be active in commission portraiture, presently at work on Galileo and High Chaparral for Michael Tabor.

As for presidential commissions, there have been none recently, although Reeves has been asked to paint Breeders' Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect by his owner, Gerald Ford. The other Gerald Ford.