02/05/2003 12:00AM

Somewhere, Jim Murray's smiling


ARCADIA, Calif. - The management of Hollywood Park has turned the normally mundane announcement of its spring and summer stakes schedule into a veritable pi?ata of zany surprises.

Okay, maybe that's going a bit too far. But anything that shakes the tree of complacency in the presentation of top-class racing is a good thing, and the folks at Hollywood Park seem to be trying their best.

Last year it was the American Oaks, a 1 1/4-mile race on the grass that filled a void in the national ranks of 3-year-old fillies. Megahertz and Dublino put on a show that will be hard to top this year. But that doesn't mean owners and trainers shouldn't try. A purse of $750,000 (up from $500,000) should supply sufficient inspiration.

This season, the Hollywood Park stakes schedule arrived with another new twist. The Jim Murray Handicap, once a lonely little $75,000 race for grass horses who had yet to make their mark, has been elevated to a $400,000, 1 1/2-mile free-for-all, designed to attract the best long-distance turf runners in training.

While he was alive, Jim Murray loved his little handicap. He had already won a Pulitzer Prize for his sports writing, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times and its syndicate, and his place was secure in the history of sports journalism alongside such icons as Red Smith and Damon Runyon. But to have his name attached to a feature race at Hollywood Park, where Shoemaker worked his miracles and Seabiscuit roamed . . . that was something special.

"Napoleon got a brandy," Murray wrote. "Caesar got a salad. They named a tank after Sherman, furniture after Louis XIV, a candy bar after Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, and toast after Madame Melba. McKinley got a mountain.

"Big deal! Know what I've got named after me? A horse race!"

It is an even bigger deal now. Scheduled for May 10 - the Saturday between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness - the Jim Murray Memorial Handicap will be the high point of a four-day cross-pollination between Thoroughbred racing and the Los Angeles Times.

The Jim Murray Handicap will be joined on the May 10 program by the enriched $200,000 Los Angeles Times Handicap at six furlongs and the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, a race named for the late president of Hollywood Park, who was somewhat better known as the man who produced "The Wizard of Oz." This fits well, since Murray was a show biz reporter for Time magazine when he first came to California after World War II.

Any kind of arrangement between a racetrack and a major media company should be stop-the-presses news. Horse racing rarely benefits these days from close association with those who carry the message. For the most part, racing struggles to maintain a toehold in the back pages of the sports section with entries, results, and an occasional feature story.

Career-minded college students might enjoy the racing game and its potential for narrative drama. But they are wise to bury that inclination behind football, basketball, and figure skating if they want to get a job.

The Times and Hollywood will be giving those students a chance to shine. Beginning on May 7, the L.A. Times Sports Workshop will welcome aspiring young Murrays and Runyons to a four-day session that will immerse them in the weird, wild world of horse racing and its inhabitants.

"The workshops will take place right at the track," said Mike Mooney, Hollywood's director of publicity/communications. "We'd like them to have as much interaction with the people and their stories as possible."

Writers and editors from the Times will conduct the workshop sessions. Applications for acceptance to the four-day program are being circulated now, to more than 500 colleges and universities across the land.

In this effort, Hollywood Park is benefiting from the experience of its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., which conducts a similar workshop on the weekend before the Kentucky Derby each year. The Sports Journalism Institute is also lending its resources to spread the word.

"The Churchill Downs workshop is our model," said Bill Dwyre, Times sports editor. "But we've never run one ourselves. We've sponsored various things, a couple of charity golf tournaments that we contribute to. But nothing high profile. This is definitely among our more high-profile things."

The Times and Hollywood Park will be conducting the workshop tuition free. Hotel accommodations will be provided. On top of that the students - a group of 30 college sophomores and juniors - will compete for 10 scholarship prizes of $1,000 each, which will be handed out at a special dinner on the evening of May 9, sponsored by the Times and featuring a guest appearance by Eclipse Award winning Thoroughbred owner Robert Lewis.

"Ten out of 30," said Mooney. "You've got to like the odds."

No question. This is a winner from all angles.