01/14/2005 1:00AM

'Wink' one of few riders with own race


ARCADIA, Calif. - Though horse racing could be described as marginalized in today's mass media market, from time to time the sport coughs up a story too good to ignore.

Steve Cauthen, "The Kid," provided just such a tale a quarter-century ago, as did the more recent resurrection of Seabiscuit as an American icon. Smarty Jones was on the same fast track until . . . well, never, mind . . . and now comes Jimmy Winkfield.

Were Winkfield alive today, and still keeping with the theme of historic serendipity that tracked his panoramic life, he probably would be dealing with the impact of the disaster in Southeast Asia, or making his way in war-torn Baghdad.

Instead, it was the tumultous first half of the 20th century that tossed Winkfield from shore to shore, when millions were rendered refugees of wars both cultural and military. Winkfield was one of the survivors, and it was horses that kept him alive.

On Monday in New York, the Aqueduct holiday program will be marked by the first running of the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, while most of the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, there will be those who will mourn the replacement of the traditional Best Turn Stakes, named for the Calumet Farm runner who won such stalwart New York races as the Vosburgh, the Saranac, the Paumonok, and the Queens County. Best Turn was a growthy 2-year-old in training when Dr. King was killed in a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968.

In honoring Winkfield, however, the management of the New York Racing Association should be singled out for bravery in the face of overpowering historical trends. It is a radical moment, close to unprecedented, that someone like Winkfield should be spotlighted by a major racing association with an event bearing his name.

After all, he was a jockey.

Winkfield was a five-foot-tall, black American jockey, born in Kentucky, who won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies in 1901 and 1902, entered into a self-imposed exile, became a star of European racing, and weathered the storms of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. He died in 1974, at the age of 96, still an expatriate in his adopted French home.

In the last year, Winkfield's legacy has been renewed and examined afresh. Last summer, his name was added to the roll of jockeys in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. That was followed by the publication of the biography "Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield," by Ed Hotaling.

And now the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. Imagine that - a stakes race named for a jockey.

When it comes to honoring its two-legged personalities, racetracks usually turn to the people who put on the show. There are major races named for such association titans as Frank De Francis, Ogden Phipps, John C. Mabee, E.P. Taylor, W.L. McKnight, Amory Haskell, and Clement Hirsch.

Thoroughbred owners and breeders receive a healthy share of attention as well, in races named for Fred Hooper, Frances Genter, John Galbreath, Daniel Van Clief, John Franks, E.R. Bradley, Arthur Appleton, and Jack Price.

Because it's their ballpark, racing management often dips into its own ranks to pat co-workers on the back. Witness races named for such salaried folks as Frank E. Kilroe, Eddie Read, Mervin Muniz, Kenny Noe, Harry Henson, and Ralph Hinds Jr.

And while there can be no gripe against naming races for Douglas MacArthur, Queen Elizabeth, Bing Crosby, Sir Winston Churchill, and Snow White, it never really makes sense to see the names of journalists attached to events covered by other journalists, even though few would argue with the guys chosen to carry the torch - among them Red Smith, Evan Shipman, Pete Axthelm, and Joe Hirsch.

As for jockeys, there are only two who have been deemed worthy of a race with national status: Isaac Murphy, from the 19th century, and Bill Shoemaker, from the 20th. There are also regional races honoring Nick Shuk and Roger Van Hoozer, and perhaps others, keeping their profiles low.

Bill Nader, NYRA's senior vice president, does not understand why riders have been so ignored. New York, for instance, is missing a race named for Eddie Arcaro, which defies belief. In honoring Winkfield, however, New York was embracing a different goal.

"The contribution made by African-Americans, and their participation to the sport, has long been overlooked," Nader said. "We thought this would be a way for NYRA to help correct that in a meaningful way. With Winkfield's induction into the Hall of Fame, and his enormous contribution to Thoroughbred racing, we thought he would be the right guy to honor on Martin Luther King Day."

No question. They got it right, and Winkfield's story of triumph and heartbreak deserves all the attention such a gesture can muster. Winkfield was a national celebrity in his day, attached to no particular track or region, which means his name was out there for any American racetrack to recognize.

Now, who would like to start the bidding on a race named for Laffit Pincay? And it better be a big one.