03/09/2005 1:00AM

William Murray, writer, dies


William Murray, a prolific writer with a passion for horse racing, died on Wednesday morning at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, N.Y., of a heart attack. Murray was 78.

Murray was the author of more than 20 books, nine of which were mysteries with horse racing themes. Murray was also a staff writer for the New Yorker for 30 years, and contributed to The New York Times, Esquire, Playboy, and other publications during his career.

Murray's horse racing books were frequently compared to the works of Damon Runyon and Dick Francis, the English horse racing mystery writer. The books were based on the character of Lou "Shifty" Anderson, a nightclub magician and inveterate horse race gambler whose encounters revolved around racetrack cheats and schemes.

A resident of Del Mar, Calif., Murray was a frequent visitor to Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and an avid horse racing fan and gambler. In 1992, he wrote a collection of racing essays, entitled "The Wrong Horse," which covered everything from county-fair racing to the idiosyncrasies of breakage.

Murray was born in New York City, but spent most of his childhood in Rome and frequently returned to Italy for the winter. His experiences in Italy partly informed a travel book called "City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome."

Murray had returned to New York City recently in order to work on publishing arrangements for his 10th "Shifty" Anderson novel and a book on opera, another one of Murray's passions. The tentative title of the mystery is "Dead Heat."

Murray is survived by his wife, Alice; a son, Bill Jr.; and two daughters, Natalia and Daisy.