08/10/2004 11:00PM

Waxing poetic with the fat man

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The worst thing about summertime at the races is that there is no time to sit down with a good book. The sport goes hard, six days a week, and barely rests on the seventh. Distractions abound, what with the tempting proximity of the Lake, the Shore, or the Beach, depending upon your taste in bodies of water. Cocktails arrive long before sunset, Mike Pegram shows up, and then, suddenly, it's tomorrow again.

Still, a few books get cracked, and by the end of summer there are those who can actually say they read something besides the Racing Form. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

This summer, the racing fan can choose from an especially deep list, leading with "The Big Horse," by Joe McGinniss. What the author of "Fatal Vision," "Heroes," and "The Selling of the President" is doing hanging around a racetrack should be apparent from the passion invested in the tale. The recent death of his protagonist, trainer P.G. Johnson, only adds a layer of wrenching poignancy to every page.

For those still searching for the mystery writer to fill the shoes of Dick Francis and William Murray, John McEvoy is worth a gamble. As the former editor of the Midwest edition of Daily Racing Form, McEvoy was forced to hide his literary light under a large basket for years. Now, after a few non-fiction efforts, he has come forth with "Blind Switch," a character-driven, race-fixing caper that deserves notice if only for the observation made by the flawed hero when he first enters a stable area:

"For one thing, Doyle had never before observed in one place more ugly men and healthy-looking women."

Go ahead. Argue the point.

The book sitting next to this computer terminal is not, in fact, a racing book. It is called "Fat Man Fed Up," and it has nothing to do with the controversy over jockey weights.

It is, however, written by a die-hard racing fan named Jack Germond, who gets to be famous because he goes on television and talks about politics. He also has covered every presidential race for the last 44 years for the Washington Star and then the Baltimore Sun, so apparently he knows what he's talking about.

Two groups of the vast, unwashed electorate will know Germond on sight. First, there are those millions who watched him hold his own as the grouchy liberal on "The McLaughlin Group," the topical gabfest that spawned a thousand Hannitys and O'Reillys. Germond was the big guy who occasionally came equipped with a Racing Form for serious reading between "issues." He addresses his notoriety in "Fat Man Fed Up":

"Many Americans are frustrated by their inability to gain a hearing for their views beyond their own breakfast tables," Germond writes. "So they react angrily when they turn on the television and see some fat bald guy shooting off his mouth on every topic imaginable. It leads to intemperate letters and even the occasional threatening phone call, usually anonymous."

Then there are those who know Germond from his regular table in the VIP Lounge at Charles Town, where he gathers with his handicapping pals several times a week to play the races from all over this great land.

"It doesn't take much to be a VIP around here," Germond said with a laugh, talking from his home not far from the West Virginia track. "And we never talk about politics. We talk about horses."

Germond caught the racing bug in 1968 while covering the early season presidential primaries.

"On primary days, you couldn't just hang around and drink, because you had to work that night," he said. "At first, I'd go to movies. Then I went to a racetrack with Dick Valeriani, the NBC guy. He showed me how to read the Form, and I got hooked. I just loved it, trying to figure out all the variables."

It did not take Germond long to recognize that, like political reporting, handicapping required a healthy dose of skepticism, as well as respect for seemingly insignificant details.

"They are always damning political reporters by saying we indulge in horse-race journalism, that we fasten so much on who's ahead," Germond noted. "I always tell tham if you don't tell the reader who's ahead, you're soon going to be covering education.

"Handicapping requires your full attention, so it's refreshing," he added. "And there's nothing like a race playing out the way I saw it coming. It's a wonderful feeling. In fact, I've really been obnoxious to my horseplaying friends lately. I am the only guy in my set who had the exacta in the Belmont Stakes. How'd I do that? No big deal, just a $10 box, but bragging rights are the best thing."

"Fat Man Fed up" is subtitled "How American Politics Went Bad." Germond's indictment of the political culture spares no targets - left or right, Republican or Democrat, and all forms of media. He has spent the last several weeks mounting the traditional book tour, about which he had only one significant complaint.

"It made me miss playing the first two weeks of Saratoga, which is what I should have been doing," Germond said.

So much for the life of a celebrity political pundit. All things considered, Jack Germond would rather be at Charles Town.