07/01/2002 11:00PM

Tom Fool always provided fireworks


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Racetracks will be trotting out all manner of celebratory events for the Fourth of July holiday. Hollywood Park offers the American Handicap. Churchill Downs features the Firecracker. In Chicago, there is the Stars and Stripes, while Belmont Park will renew the Tom Fool.

Tom Fool?

In fact, there is no better way to honor the day. Tom Fool was a red-blooded, true-blue, all-American racehorse who could be counted on time and time again.

Tom Fool is best known for his perfect season in 1953 when he won all 10 of his races and was elected Horse of the Year. He actually won 11 straight, going back to his final start of 1952, and it just as easily could have been a run of 16 wins were it not for a couple of tough seconds. One of them was by a nose to the accomplished older horse Battlefield, and it was the jockey who took the blame that day.

"A week earlier I had ruptured the tendons on the ring finger of my left hand," wrote Ted Atkinson in his 1961 autobiography, "All the Way."

"In the stretch run, with Battlefield nose-and-nose outside of us, I found it necessary to switch my whip from my right hand. My fingers on the left hand wouldn't behave and I lost the damn thing."

As racing books go, Atkinson's is one of the best. Erudite, self-effacing, and dry-witted, the author (together with former New York Times writer Lucy Freeman) drapes a friendly arm over his reader and takes a relaxed stroll through a world he wanted to share.

In addition to Tom Fool, Atkinson rode Capot, Devil Diver, War Relic, and Hill Gail. He was North America's champion in 1944 and 1946, when he led all riders in both money and wins. He was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1957, and he retired in 1959 after a career of 22 years. His 3,795 winners were good enough for fourth on the all-time list behind Gordon Richards, John Longden, and Eddie Arcaro.

"I miss race racing," Atkinson wrote shortly thereafter. "I don't see how a man could do anything 23,000 times and not miss it when it was over."

Best of all, Theodore Fredric Atkinson is alive and well and with us today, still in love with Thoroughbred racing.

Atkinson turned 86 on June 17. He and his wife, Martha, live on their 100-acre farm near the little Virginia town of Beaver Dam, about 40 miles south of Richmond. In the last few years, Atkinson has sustained a pair of strokes, and his hearing isn't quite what it was. As a result, he can't stray too far from his home, which is too bad. The native of Toronto is being inducted into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame in August, and he will have to pass on the party.

"Ted once asked Eddie Arcaro if he missed racing," recalled Martha Atkinson one morning this week. "Eddie told him that he never thought about it at all. Ted couldn't understand, since he missed it very much, and always has."

Martha put Ted on the phone. He was asked about his health. "Not anything unexpected," he replied, verifying that his sense of humor was intact.

Atkinson's voice was strong and clear, still very much the quotable star of the 1940's and 1950's who made such columnists as Red Smith and Joe Palmer look good. It was Jim Roach of The New York Times who snagged the best line, when he asked Atkinson about the steady whipping he applied to Tom Fool to win the 1953 Suburban Handicap by a nose over Royal Vale.

"The idea was not to punish Tom Fool," Atkinson said, "but to impress him with the urgency of the situation."

As contract rider for John Hay Whitney's Greentree Stable, Atkinson had a lifelong relationship with Tom Fool. He described him as "a very natural horse, who did what he had to do when you asked him to do it."

Atkinson worked Tom Fool regularly, galloped him often, and rode him in every single one of his 30 lifetime starts.

"I suppose that was unusual, for a horse with such a long career," Atkinson said. "And lucky, too. Of course I'd get hurt from time to time, but I always managed to get better in time to ride Tom Fool."

There was considerable incentive. It should come as no surprise that the Atkinsons were able to enjoy a dip in their Tom Fool Pool at home in Old Westbury, on Long Island. After all, he bought it for them. During the spring and summer of 1953, Tom Fool won the Metropolitan, Suburban, Carter, Brooklyn, and Whitney. By the time he reached the end of the season, there were few owners or trainers who chose to waste a race against him.

"If you can believe it, his last four races were non-betting contests," Atkinson said. "The only sure thing was that you'd lose your money betting against him."

Atkinson tipped his hand when he began his autobiography with the simple declaration, "I have always had a feeling about horse racing that it was too good to be true."

There was plenty of supporting evidence, and a lot of it was named Tom Fool.