02/15/2008 12:00AM

Stratton brought racing home


ARCADIA, Calif. - For a young racing fan growing up in Southern California in the early 1960s, Saturday afternoons were holy. All lawns had to be mowed and edged, leaves raked, and the garage swept by four o'clock sharp, otherwise you would miss the one reliable chance to watch your game on TV, during the half-hour telecast from Santa Anita or Hollywood Park that was sponsored by Union 76 and hosted by Gil Stratton.

Suddenly there they were, the newspaper and magazine stories turned flesh and blood - even though the telecast was black and white. There was Shoemaker and Longden. Whittingham and Tenney. Lucky Debonair, Hill Rise, Gun Bow, and Native Diver.

Small of stature but long on lungs, Stratton was one of the most recognizable personalities in electronic broadcasting. In addition to holding down the sports desk on "The Big News," which was the top-rated local news show in the nation, Stratton was a regular on the CBS radio affiliate KNX, as well as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Los Angeles Rams.

As such, Stratton's voice was imprinted on any young sports fan forever, so there was no mistaking who answered the phone this week at home in the L.A. suburb of Touluca Lake. Stratton, 85, will be honored Sunday at Santa Anita with a race in his name and a reception for his wide circle of admirers.

"I was never a big fan of racing, as such," Stratton said. "I never gambled, and that's an awful lot of time between races when you don't bet. But I think the people are terrific, and that's how we approached the show, especially when we had a half-hour and only a minute and a half or so of action. We didn't set out to cover a sporting event. We did a program."

Before diving into a career as a sports broadcaster, Stratton enjoyed a measure of success as an actor on both stage and screen. Film buffs know him from choice roles alongside William Holden in "Stalag 17" and Marlon Brando in the biker movie "The Wild One."

Stratton's producer for the racing show was Joe Burnham, the Eclipse Award-winning cinematographer, who was assisted by Santa Anita publicist Frank Tours.

"If I did any good at all, it's because I studied, and we worked at it," Stratton said. "It wasn't something you just showed up and did. We did our film features Thursday morning, on the backstretch and at Clockers' Corner, then ate in the stable cafeteria. It was fun, and we got to know the characters."

The shows with Stratton included some of the greatest moments in California history. But for Stratton, they all take a backseat to the 1966 San Juan Capistrano, in which Johnny Longden won the final race of his career in the final ride of his career.

"When I got down to the winner's circle," Stratton recalled, "I said to John, 'You've been so gracious with us over the years, since this is your last ride I'm going to give you the microphone, and you can say whatever you want.'"

It was a rare moment, a leap of faith, and just the right thing to do. Could Stratton picture a broadcaster relinquishing control like that today?

"They probably wouldn't be working the next day," he said with a laugh.

Ray York, winner of the Kentucky Derby aboard Determine, was another of Stratton's favorite personalities.

"I remember one day at Santa Anita after a race, a horse got loose and started down the stretch the wrong direction," Stratton said. "Ray chased after him with his racehorse, and he got it. But his trainer went nuts. Ray just said, 'Well, somebody had to catch it.'

"I like to think that we helped racing a great deal at that time. We were showing a lot of behind-the-scenes things that were never seen before. And hopefully it was appealing to a younger audience. One day Alvaro Pineda told me that he became a jockey because of the show. He was at home watching, and he thought, 'I could do that.'"

Jockeys seemed to click with Stratton, whose height gave them a rare eye-level look at their interviewer. He also gave their profession a whirl, once agreeing to break a horse out of the starting gate while cameras rolled.

"I'd only been on one horse in my life, and that was in a movie," Stratton said. "And movie horses are smarter than the actors.

"The outrider said don't worry, I wouldn't be three jumps out of there and he'd catch me. Of course, when we came out of there the horse went right by the outrider, and he started heading toward the outside of the track. I could imagine myself either impaled on the fence or splattered on the concrete, so I jumped off. . . and I broke my wrist in two places."

Stratton became even more of a celebrity than he already was. During his sports report on "The Big News" he displayed his cast proudly, adorned with the signatures of Shoemaker, Longden, York, Don Pierce, Bill Harmatz, and the rest of the local room.

"I had people like Bill Russell and Frank Gifford as guests on the news show, and they all wanted to sign my cast," Stratton recalled. "I had to tell them no. Jockeys only. It was only for my fellow riders."