01/25/2008 1:00AM

Stewart linked racing, music


On Sunday at Turf Paradise, in the ninth and final race of the day, an 8-year-old gelding named Runnin' the River making his 46th start will take on a field of $10,000 claimers, most of them bone-tired, dead-game veterans who would just as soon be munching pasture grass than performing for the pleasure of a pari-mutuel audience.

Still, they keep showing up, which makes them a perfect bunch for the John Stewart Tribute Purse.

John Stewart, the son of a horse trainer, died last Saturday in San Diego, blindsided by a stroke that hit him in the night, turning out the lights on the most prolific songwriter this side of Bob Dylan. He was just 68, but it was 68 of the most musically rich years you could ever imagine, from his days doing leggy Elvis impressions in Pomona, through his celebrated stretch with the Kingston Trio and then a fiercely independent solo career, to the last month of his life, when he was recording songs at a private studio near Santa Anita Park that he promised would blow your socks off.

Stewart wrote about everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to the death of Lady Di, from a Route 66 barber named Angel Delgadillo to the deathwatch of Fidel Castro. His songs told tales of the American experience and peeled back feelings so raw that they had to be honest, like these from "Clack Clack," written after the assassination of his friend, Robert Kennedy:

"It was Bobby's song, that I wrote without trying/every word, every word/Now that Bobby's gone, this is my way of crying/ when I heard, when I heard . . ."

Through it all, it was impossible for John to hide his horse racing roots. John was born on Sept. 5, 1939, in San Diego, the day after the Del Mar Thoroughbred meet closed. His dad was a Kentucky hardboot who dealt mostly with standardbreds and demanded a mansize day's work out of his young son, or so went the story in "Razorback Woman":

"I was only fourteen and my dad he was mean/and his face shined a river of sweat/He'd started yellin' you go straight to hell/and you're young, and your ears are still wet."

"Mother Country" - which should be the national anthem - creates the iconic image of the blind and dying E.A. Stuart driving his five-gaited champion Sweetheart on Parade one last time around the ring. Sweetheart on Parade was, in fact, a real-life champion of the 1930s, and to Stewart's hero, "she was easily the finest horse that the good Lord ever made."

"Back in Pomona" offers Stewart's boyhood recollections of working at the L.A. County Fair, putting his head to the ground and hearing "them big ol' pacers come on down." The song "Tanforan" was inspired by the movie "Seabiscuit," and "Golden Gate Fields" by racetrackers down, but not quite out.

Anyone familiar with Stewart's background will be glad to know that some of his titles ended up attached to noble Thoroughbreds. There were three named Daydream Believer, John's most famous song, and two called Mother Country. One of them produced 1993 Remsen Stakes runner-up Arrovente.

Neither Clack Clack, a daughter of Ack Ack, nor Fireinthewind, by Alleged, managed to win a race, while Summer Child, a daughter of Michael's Choice, never ran. And then there were three different Runaway Trains, a Stewart song that went to No. 1 on the country list when covered by Roseanne Cash.

Turf Paradise is the perfect place for a John Stewart race. The Valley of the Sun always was dear to John's soul, and his best live album - "The Phoenix Concerts" - was recorded there in 1974, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Among the tracks are such Stewart stalwarts as "Mother Country," "July, You're a Woman," "California Bloodlines," and "Cody," with his wife and muse, Buffy Ford. With all those riches, he saved the final song for his rousing homage to Secretariat, "Let the Big Horse Run."

"Swaps, Citation, Man o' War/never saw a horse like that before/let him run/let the big horse run."

Eugene Joyce, general manager of Turf Paradise, is a John Stewart fan from his early 1960s Kingston Trio days. Joyce, who grew up on Long Island, even found a way to make it pay.

"Back when the drinking age was 18, my best friend and I had learned all these Kingston Trio songs from his older brother," Joyce said. "Finnegans was a local watering hole, where your dad would be at one end of the bar, and you'd be with your buddies at the other. No jukebox, nothing, just conversation. We go in there with two nickels in our pockets, strike up a Trio tune - 'Scotch and Soda' obviously the favorite - and we caught on. 'Hey, send those fellas a pitcher of beer.' Carried us right through college to our starving bachelor days."

For John, there was always a horizon, which is why it's no surprise that he had a busy concert schedule ahead. His next gig was supposed to come up on Sunday night in Scottsdale, just down the road from Turf Paradise, at the Upper Deck Sports Grill. Dave Batti, John Hoke, and the rest of John's bandmates sat stunned for a few moments, then went to work rehearsing for a tribute concert. I wouldn't miss it for the world . . . right after I see a horse race.