05/05/2004 11:00PM

A sport that brought out his best

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The $350,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park honors the life and work of the man often referred to as America's greatest sportswriter.

Says who? Well, a Pulitzer Prize, for starters, along with 14 nods from the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters as America's Best Sportswriter, as well as a place in the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Murray was a student of history and a witness to nearly every great sporting event of the last half of the 20th century. He adored horse racing and wrote about the game with glee. Every longshot, every Derby winner, every hardboot trainer with a scowl and a cheek full of chew was grist for Murray's hyperbolic style.

"He did what he had to do on the day he had to do it - as the great ones always do," Murray wrote of Affirmed's 1978 Kentucky Derby. "This was the seventh game of the World Series, the fourth quarter, the main event, and the 15th round. It doesn't matter in this game what you do at Pimlico next week or Arlington Park next summer. The Kentucky Derby is a gruelling mile-and-a-quarter rock pile a chain gang should work on."

Or this, in appreciation of Horatio Luro's work with 1962 Derby winner Decidedly:

"Luro's training methods are of the Bear Bryant school. He makes the scrimmages so tough the game is a relief. For one thing, Luro puts a 150-pound exercise boy on Decidedly in the morning. Then he sits back to see which one of them comes home on foot. When it was the horse, Luro knew his biggest problem was to fight through the crowd to the winner's circle on Saturday."

Or this, upon the occasion of Johnny Longden's last, victorious ride in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano at the age of 59:

"A part of your youth gets off horseback with John. Suddenly, you notice the bifocals in the mirror. The ticking of the clock seems louder. The calendar is a mock."

Murray died on Aug. 16, 1998, at the age of 79. One can only imagine how much fun he would be having right now as the Smarty Jones saga unfolds. The whole tale hangs like a curve, begging Murray to take one deep. The little horse that can't be beat, the trainer from West Virginia coal country, the car salesman owner, the "Stew Who?" jockey, and the town. Oh, the town. How Murray loved to needle Philadelphia, a city he described as "a place to park and change your socks."

Murray would trot out every reference, from Robin Roberts to Chuck Bednarik to Rocky Balboa. He might even have a field day with current Eagles head coach Andy Reid, an L.A. native who admitted to writing a column for the local Provo Daily Herald while he played football for Brigham Young University.

"I loved Jim Murray," Reid is quoted in his Eagles bio. "I wrote one of these cutesy deals, trying to write like Jim. The editors took it easy on me."

The Murray Memorial serves as the centerpiece of an effort by Hollywood Park and the Los Angeles Times to expose horse racing to a broader audience, including college students, who will be hard at work Saturday reporting racing stories as part of a journalism seminar.

In addition to the Murray, the program will include the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap for older horses on the main track and the Los Angeles Times Handicap for sprinters. So there should be plenty of good stories to go around.

The Murray Memorial itself was launched impressively last year when Storming Home emerged as one of America's leading grass runners. If there is a Storming Home among the seven entered for the Murray, however, he has been shy about it so far. Rhythm Mad might have been closer at the end of the San Juan Capistrano with a cleaner run at the top of the stretch, and Ballingary certainly deserves a strong look based upon his third-place finish in the Murray last year.

If nothing else, the Murray and its companion features will provide an entertaining pause in the breathless chaos of the Triple Crown. These are older horses, seasoned and wise, some of them even survivors of their own Triple Crowns from years past.

Jim Murray knew the difference. He shared his insight in what turned out to be his last column, covering the 1998 victory of Free House in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar - the same Free House who had finished third in the Derby, second in the Preakness, and third in the Belmont Stakes the year before:

"You know, in most sports, the athlete gets a generation to prove himself," Murray wrote. "A Jack Nicklaus wins his first major at 22 and his last at 46. A George Foreman wins Olympic boxing gold in 1968, and 30 years later he's still fighting. Babe Ruth hits his first home run in 1915 and his last in 1935. But a race horse has to act like he's double-parked. He gets only months to prove he has been here.

"What did Free House do that turned him into a star? Well, he got older."