05/10/2007 12:00AM

A story Murray would've loved


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Jim Murray won't exactly spin in his grave, but he'd certainly sit up and take notice, and definitely crack wise, if by some chance a horse partly owned by two sportswriters jumps up to win the $250,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park.

The idea is not that far-fetched. On the Acorn, the beast in question, won the San Juan Capistrano Invitational at Santa Anita in his last public appearance, and won't need to run much faster to bag the 1 1/2-mile Murray as well. He races for a partnership that includes former L.A. Herald-Examiner sports reporter Jack Disney and retired Hall of Fame baseball writer Ross Newhan, who labored long for Murray's Los Angeles Times. Former Angels and Expos manager Buck Rodgers also is in for a share, along with Paul Salata, Fred Krueger, and Disney's brother, Doug.

Murray was 78 when he filed his last column for the L.A. Times, covering the victory of Free House in the 1998 Pacific Classic. He suffered a fatal heart attack the next day, after getting home from Del Mar.

At the time, there was already a Jim Murray Handicap at Hollywood Park, but it was a minor race with a five-figure purse. Didn't matter to Jim, though. As far as he was concerned, it ranked right up there with his Pulitzer Prize, his 14 nods as American Sportswriter of the Year, and his plaque in the writers' wing at Cooperstown.

"Napoleon got a brandy," Murray once 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!"

For Murray, horse racing finished in a dead heat with boxing as the worlds he loved to cover. The confluence of man, animal, and rich history inspired Murray to craft some of his greatest lines.

Murray called the Triple Crown "harder to win than a crap game on the waterfront . . . and any horse who wins it immediately becomes Babe Ruth." He decried the Crown-busting Belmont Stakes as a race that "has killed more good stories than an editor who's just had a fight with his wife," and in his Thanksgiving column of 1973, he listed Secretariat among the things for which he was thankful.

"But I wish he had to keep working for a living like the rest of us," Murray added. "Early retirement might be okay - but at age 3?!"

When Bill Plaschke began sharing Murray's page one column space in the Times sports section in 1996, he came to immediate terms with the fact that he would never come up with a line for the Indy 500 like "Gentlemen, start your coffins," or an image of Ricky Henderson as having "a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart," or, simply, "Show me a man who is a good loser and I'll show you a man who is playing golf with the boss." Murray got there first.

Plaschke even conceded that he had to answer to a whole new name.

"It went from two words to four words," Plaschke wrote. "It went from unpronounceable to unmistakable. I was no longer 'Bill Plaschke.' I became 'You're No Jim Murray.' "

If Murray were still hammering out the gems today, he would have a field day with On the Acorn running in the Murray Memorial. Ex-claimers were Murray's red meat. He loved any horse who defied the odds. But first, he might scratch his head over the roller-coaster ride taken by the purse of the race itself:

* "It was a wee thing at birth, a mere $75,000 toddler, barely tip money for guys like Whittingham and Frankel. But then it matured, the same way Mark McGwire matured, and it was offering more scratch than the tobacco lobby. Lately, though, the Murray pot of gold has been leaking, from $400,000 to $350,000 to Saturday's $250,000, which ain't hay. But if this keeps up they'll be paying to play."

* On the Acorn is worth the Murray treatment all by himself.

"Move over Exterminator. Step aside Armed. John Henry, your replacement part has arrived. As a horse named for something that falls out of trees, On the Acorn has become the poster boy for all the nuts who think the game is easy. At least, he makes it look that way. You could have bought him with the change in the couch, and now look at him - winning a race won by Seabiscuit, Olden Times, and Cougar II! Let's just hope he doesn't go off his feed if he wins on Saturday and finds out who this Murray guy really was."

Like most sportswriters, Jack Disney and Ross Newhan worshipped the inkstains on Jim Murray's fingertips. Disney, who became a racetrack publicist after retiring from his paper, has been "stallwalking" all week in anticipation of On the Acorn's race, light-headed at the possibility of their one-horse stable winning a race with Murray's name on it.

"It just warms my heart just thinking about it," Disney said.

Yeah, right. But what would Murray say?