11/13/2003 1:00AM

You can't make this stuff up


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is starting to get cold, and wet, and dark long before dinner. Time to snuggle down with a hot toddy, a warm dog, and a good story - something ripe and mysterious - because nothing puts the world on hold like a fine work of fiction.

Horse racing fiction occupies a corner of its own. The game is strange enough anyway - why make stuff up? - and yet some great writers have spun their own racing fables, from Ernest Hemingway's "My Old Man" to D.H. Lawrence's "Rocking Horse Winner" to the "Black Stallion" series of Walter Farley.

Because it appears so easy to do - writing fiction, that is - everyone should give it a try. Stop complaining that there's nothing fun to read when it comes to racing. Look around, latch onto a tale, and let it fly. At the very least, you might entertain the family, ripping and tearing through first and second drafts, just like "real" writers do in the movies.

The Thoroughbred Times, one of racing's top trade publications, encourages just such an activity. Every two years, the Thoroughbred Times Fiction Contest attracts scores of hopeful entries from all over the racing world. For the 2002 competition, the Times received 178 submissions from 35 states and two Canadian provinces. The winner was Catherine Dupree of Boston, who wrote about a young woman who chased the dream of becoming a jockey. Fiction, obviously.

So take your best shot, but don't plan on getting rich. At least not right away. First place is worth $800, along with publication in an issue of Thoroughbred Times. Don't be discouraged. Eight bills is better than what most nonfiction earns in a racing magazine.

Anyway, quality tends to find its own level. The first winner of the Times contest was "The Hanging in the Foaling Barn," by Susan Starr Richards. Her story won an O. Henry Award and was published in the 1994 O. Henry collection by Random House. O. Henry Awards, which began in 1918, have been won by John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and Bernard Malamud, among others.

Since the best fiction has at least one foot planted firmly in the world of recognizable events, the writer should not feel obligated to create Middle Earth from scratch. Just as Dick Francis made millions tweaking the real world of English racing to his fictional needs, beginning fiction writers will find plenty of grist hidden in the truth. Anyone having trouble coming up with an idea need only scan a selection of racing headlines. Try on some of these recent pieces:

* "Who Is Killing the Young Jocks of Ireland?" Three dead since last August, two in racing accidents (Kieran Kelly and Sean Cleary) and a third just last Tuesday, when Timmy Houlihan was found near his home in Kildare, the center of Ireland's racing scene. Their ages: 25, 22, and 21.

Racing accidents happen, sadly. But Houlihan, a leading apprentice with 60 winners, was not on horseback. Authorities were quoted in early press reports saying that foul play was not suspected. Sorry, but any time a 21-year-old athlete is found dead, something smells terribly foul.

* "Barbarians at the Starting Gate" or "Bonfire of the Overnights." Where to begin? The unraveling tapestry of racing's high-profile business giants might not rival the operatic dimensions of Nabisco, Enron, or Martha Stewart, but that should not stop an enterprising Tom Wolfe wanna-be who just happens to be a racing fan.

Magna Entertainment is crying for dark parody (former executives, based on this week's departures, now outnumber those currently employed), while the New York Racing Association has just entered the misty world of bookkeeping more readily identified with the recording industry. Imagine, commingling upward of $20 million of horsemen's money with racetrack operating funds. Sounds like something straight out of "The Rutles," a twisted homage to the Beatles, in which the group's business manager clings to his slippery mantra:

"I don't know where the money is. I've never been good with figures, you know that. I don't know anything about math. It was never my good subject. But if you need money, I'll give you money."

* "War of the Labs." Texas, Louisiana, and Delaware have instituted postrace tests for epogen, the performance-enhancing human drug now strongly rumored to be used in Thoroughbreds. New York and the Canadian province of Ontario, also using EPO tests, have established tough penalties for horses who come up positive. National organizations have praised the advancement of such testing and enforcement.

Then along comes a guy like Terence See-ming Wan to spoil the party. Dr. Wan is chief racing chemist of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, recognized as hard-nosed when it comes to drug testing. In a story from the South China Morning News, Wan warned that the North American EPO test might not measure up to standards needed for punitive action.

"Testing the reaction of the horse to a foreign protein is purely a presumptive test," Wan said. "There is always the possibility some other protein could have triggered a similar reaction."

Here we go again. Science can't seem to gets its stories straight, and racing gets caught in the middle. So why not turn it into science fiction? There must be a budding H.G. Wells out there somewhere, and if so, he or she has a little over a month to get it on paper. The deadline for the Thoroughbred Times Fiction Contest is Dec. 31. So get cracking.