05/15/2003 11:00PM

You want scandal? Go read a book

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There appears to be no limit to the human appetite for scandal. From the impeachment of a President for lying about a sexual dalliance, to the suggestion that a respected jockey cheated his way to victory in the Kentucky Derby, the menu of sensational possibilities is endless.

In fact, most scandals lose their juice before sunset. Nothing ruins a good story like the tedious introduction of actual fact. And even though, as T.S. Eliot wrote, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality," that is possibly true only because reality can be so drab.

For those who were hoping that the prospect of a Kentucky Derby scandal would fuel a media feast, deepest sympathies are due. But take heart. There is a satisfying alternative immediately available.

Anyone willing to crack an attractive, professionally bound hardcover book will be rewarded a thousandfold by the purchase and consumption of "Ringers & Rascals: A Taste of Skulduggery," by British racing journalist David Ashforth.

Right away, the American reader would be suspicious. Words such as "rascals" and "skulduggery" smack of a 19th century writing style more associated with Dickens or Trollope than a hard-boiled Mickey Spillane.

Fear not. Ashforth is about as "American" as an English racing writer gets - and it is sincerely wished that he takes no offense by the compliment. A former academician, Ashforth has made a point of studying the American way of racing for many years. More often than not, he will fly in the face of accepted British behavior and actually attend the Kentucky Derby instead of the 2000 Guineas, which are traditionally presented on the same first Saturday in May.

As an unabashed cynic, suspicious of both authority and insider access, Ashforth maintains his equilibrium by being a devoted fan of the sport. His regular columns and commentaries in The Racing Post are a refreshing mixture of odes to brave horses, appreciation of horsemanship, and careful analysis of trends in racing policy and economics. He also uses humor where required.

In "Ringers & Rascals," Ashforth has offered up a joyously readable account of racing's most notorious scoundrels and betting coups. Many of their scams are already legendary - the Lebon-Cinzano ringer case is America's most famous contribution - and when packaged under one title, a continuum of aberrant behavior begins to sink in. Horse racing, described as the Sport of Kings by its publicists, has been forever used as a handy vehicle for the worst kinds of larceny.

Unlike some journalists who run with a tale before they have thought it through, Ashforth has put in extensive research that gives "Rascals & Ringers" the feel of a very spicy version of the accepted public record. He saves the reader from detailed trial transcripts (the dreary crutch of some true crime writers), while letting the characters propel the narrative.

"People in England haven't got the foggiest notion of what really crooked racing means," said Peter Christian Barrie, nicknamed "Ringer" for his life's work as a racing con man. "Out in the States, the 'Sport of Kings' is just another racket, with the gangsters and the gunmen pulling most of the strings."

Barrie, the star of Ashforth's book, may have had his opinion slightly jaded by associations with some of Chicago's toughest customers, guys with names like Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan. As the widely proclaimed "King of the Ringers," Barrie plied his horse-switching skills around the world, from his native England, to such New World outposts as Cuba, Mexico, Australia, and Canada, as well as the gullible U.S. of A.

But they caught him, at Saratoga, during the summer of 1934 at Saratoga, where Barrie charmed reporters and authorities as "an engaging little cuss," who was "boastful and very proud of his feats, even though he was broke." Barrie was deported to Scotland.

Ashforth goes on to chronicle the exploits of such "Ringer" Barrie wannabes as Mark Gerard, Ken Richardson, Rich Renzella and Hayden Haitana. The thread they create through the history of the sport is both fascinating and depressing. Can a game so susceptible to fraud ever be taken seriously?

The reader has a right to wonder, although Ashforth does cite the advancements in identification - "tattoos and brands, passports and blood-testing, microchips and DNA" - that offer some solace. For a ringer scheme to work today, a fresh and creative approach would be required. Ashforth, for one, will not be shocked if it happens.

TV crew gets it right

A final thumbs-up to the ESPN racing crew on Wednesday's telecast of the Preakness post position draw. Kenny Mayne, Randy Moss, and Hank Goldberg were allowed to mix the right amount of air-cleansing analysis, indignation, and sarcasm regarding the suspicions raised by The Miami Herald's interpretation of a particular Kentucky Derby finish photo.

Moss offered that the issue had about as much substance as "an Elvis sighting," while Goldberg correctly held the Churchill Downs stewards accountable for giving the story the credence of an investigation. Mayne got to play the trump card, though, when he pointed out the rapid retreat of pace-pressing Brancusi during a replay of the Derby stretch run.

"If you look closely," Mayne said, "you'll see the jockey has an anchor in his hand."