08/12/2005 12:00AM

Still running past the finish line


DEL MAR, Calif. - Somehow, the Del Mar meeting has been able to proceed at a successful pace this summer without the annual contribution of one of its most generous patrons.

William Murray - Bill to his friends - suffered a fatal heart attack last March while on business in his native New York City. At the age of 78, he had lived a full and fruitful life. And yet it was far too young for a man who was still throwing fastballs, especially after being granted generous reprieves from at least two encounters with his own mortality.

Murray was Del Mar's literary laureate, a local denizen who delighted in racing's characters, told their stories, and diligently played their game. In "Del Mar - Its Life and Good Times," Murray offered a raconteur's history of the track. In his series of racing mysteries - books like "When the Fat Man Sings" and "The Getaway Blues" - the action coursed through countless settings, but always found their way back to Del Mar.

In his racing memoir, "The Wrong Horse," Murray recalled his first summers spent at Del Mar with his young daughters as a mixture of the idyllic and the hard-boiled:

"Every morning my girls and I breakfasted on the open terrace of a restaurant and nightclub called the Fire Pit, right next to the motel. We'd spend several hours in the surf and on the beach, after which I would head for the track, knowing that the girls would be safe under the supervision of the local lifeguards and the motel manager's kindly wife.

"The motel itself was a slum, with a noisy and unreliable plumbing system and furniture apparently salvaged from a flophouse. At two a.m., curfew time for public boozing in California, the Fire Pit would disgorge a horde of revelers into the adjacent parking lot, from which they would depart over the next half-hour in a great clashing of fenders, screaming, laughter and clattering of beer cans."

Racetrackers who came to know Murray learned that he was, among other things, a gifted classical singer and fluent in several languages, and had served a long tour as a staff writer for The New Yorker, in which his "Letter From Italy" appeared with anticipated regularity.

Murray's New Yorker piece about Il Palio, the legendary charge through the cobblestone streets of Siena, remains one of the best horse racing tales ever told. But it was his mysteries for which the racing world will remember Murray, beginning in 1984 with "Tip on a Dead Crab" and ending with the book he had finished at the time of his death, called "Dead Heat."

Murray fans won't be disappointed. There are all his favorite suspects - lowlifes, swells, hard-knockers and flawed heroes - plus a trainer named Jake "Giacomo" Fontana who suffers from a debilitating condition that will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who has ever brushed close to an experience with mental illness. A passage from "Dead Heat" gives the reader pause:

"The panic attacks came every twenty minutes or so, bringing with them an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and despair. He didn't know how long they lasted, perhaps no more than a minute or so or a matter of seconds, but they swept over him like small tidal waves, stripping him of logic and desire. In between these relentless attacks, he lay there almost motionless, a prisoner in his own body, helpless to rouse himself to cognitive action."

Murray himself was a survivor of mental illness, which struck when he was in Rome in the spring of 1999 while doing research for the book that was to become "City of the Soul." After returning home to San Diego, he was subjected to a horrific series of misdiagnoses, harmful medications, and terrifying hospitalizations. He survived mainly through the dogged tenacity of his wife, Alice, a former nurse who helped him escape the system and find proper treatment.

"Alice saved my life," Murray said, more than once. In gratitude, he thrived through five more productive years - turning back cancer along the way - until the end came in March. At Del Mar last weekend, Murray's memory was honored, with Alice and his children in attendance, and "Dead Heat" on the shelves.

The best writers always leave their readers wanting more, and so it was with William Murray. At the same time, the great ones never leave the important things unsaid, so it is no surprise that Murray got it right in "The Wrong Horse," published 13 years ago, when he mused on the question of whether he was a winner or a loser at the track.

After ticking off a list of precious memories, Murray settled on a particular day at Santa Anita in 1972, when the recently bachelored writer settled in for an afternoon of serious handicapping.

"Sitting in a box next to me that day was a pretty freckled blonde woman with a sweet Irish face, hazel eyes, and long arms," Murray wrote of the day he met Alice. "I wanted to get to know her, but I couldn't think of a graceful way to introduce myself to her. Finally, with all the savoir faire for which I am world-famous, I leaned casually toward her and thrust my program at her. 'Who do you like in this race?' I asked. She smiled and picked a winner, so what could I do but marry her?"