09/15/2005 11:00PM

A steward with, yes, a heart

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Dave Samuel will never forget the day, early in his career as a Southern California racing official, when he walked into the jockeys' room for a brief visit before heading to the stewards' office.

"Laffit Pincay was sitting with his back to me, so he had no idea I was there," Samuel recalled. "I heard him say, 'Well, I've got to go see the stewards. They're going to tell me how to ride.' "

Samuel still cracks up when he tells the story, because the idea remains patently absurd, for anyone to suppose they could lecture a star like Pincay on the finer points of riding a racehorse.

"It's rare, but even the great ones crossed the line from time to time," Samuel said. "And they usually knew when they did. Still, for a young steward, it was a little intimidating. When someone like Pincay or Shoemaker came in for a hearing, the best thing to do was shut up and listen to the older stewards."

Samuel is among recent cluster of retirements by long-serving California officials that included Merlin Volzke, Jack Williams, and Pete Pedersen. Samuel beat them to the punch, serving his last day as an official on Dec. 31, 2003, after 36 years on the California circuit.

Until his retirement, Samuel was a regular in the stewards' stand at the Los Angeles County Fair, which is currently underway at Fairplex Park. The pay was good, but it had to be to compensate for 2 1/2 weeks of racing without a break, threat-level heat and smog, and a jocks' room full of B-list riders who were hell-bent to cash in on the generous Fairplex prize money.

And then there were the stairs. Lots of stairs. From ground level to the stewards' booth on the roof of the Fairplex grandstand, the average middle-aged racing official needs pitons, oxygen, and a sherpa. It starts with a conventional stairway to the box seat level, then switches to 75 or so concrete steps, stadium-style with no handrails, followed by a narrow, vertical ladder to a walk of 50 yards across a fully exposed tarpaper roof, complete with unobstructed view of the eastern San Gabriel Valley.

Oh sure, there's an elevator, waaaaay down at the other end of the grandstand, used only by wimps and pansies. Samuel used to make the trip up from the booth to the saddling paddock three or four times a day.

"I was the only steward to go down to the paddock during the day," Samuel said. "I mean I was the only steward crazy enough to face those stairs three or four times a day."

Samuel, a minor league ballplayer in his youth, kept himself fit right up to the day he retired, and then right up to the day he was found to have familial amyloid neuropathy, a relentlessly degenerative disease that attacks the peripheral nervous system and eventually renders the muscles of the arms and legs useless. As suggested by its name, the condition is hereditary.

"The same thing has happened to my older brother," Samuel noted. "But we sure can't blame it on my mom. She lived to be 93 and never showed a sign. My dad passed away at 65, and that's about the time you start getting the symptoms."

Samuel, who is 72, was a passionate trail hiker well past his 70th birthday, before his symptoms became more serious. Now, as his condition progresses, he needs a walker to negotiate his apartment and a wheelchair if he ventures very far into the world. But if he feels sorry for himself, he's hiding it well.

"I don't know why I feel so good, but I really do," Samuel said. "I get calls from people all the time, and somebody e-mailed me a great cartoon yesterday. There's an old guy sitting in the doctor's office. His head's down, his muscles are sagging, knobby knees, and the doctor is saying, 'Remember those 10 years you added to your life by taking such good care of yourself? This is what they will look like.' Like Barbara Bush said, old age is not for sissies."

As a steward, Samuel could be described as a reluctant disciplinarian who maintained a collegial relationship with the licensees he policed. A fearsome hanging judge he was not.

"I started in '67 at Santa Anita, and I don't think there was ever a day that I was feeling like, 'My god, I've got to go to work,' " Samuel said. "I enjoyed almost every day. There were days I would go home at night, wondering if we did the right thing, taking away a jock's living for five days. But most of the time you felt you made the right decision."

Asked if he had any advice to pass on to the coming generation of racing stewards, Samuel offered a lesson from his early days in the stand.

"One of the first stewards' jobs I had was with Pete and Shelly," Samuel said, referring to Pete Pedersen and the late Alfred Shelhamer. "The first inquiry comes up. Pete says one thing. Shelly says the other. And when I finally make up my mind I decide Pete's right."

The punchline?

"Shelly wouldn't talk to me for two or three days," Samuel said with a laugh. "From then on, whenever we had an inquiry, I made up my mind to be the first vote, and then let the other two guys fight about it."