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Off and Running : Del Mar Race Meet Rekindles Love Affair for a Horse-Crazy Author

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There he was, the Great Resider, leaning against a half-eaten bale of hay, watching yet another morning spring to life at the Del Mar racetrack.

For William Murray, there was much to eyeball before Opening Day last month at the track--his track, his so-called home away from home during the seven-week racing season.

His horse, Ultra Sass, a dark bay 3-year-old filly he co-owns and unabashedly calls his sweetheart, was being put through a brisk walk by a stable hand.

That was not all that excited Murray. Even after 25 years as one of the main betting fixtures at Del Mar, he still thrills to the start of a new season with its many smells, sights and sounds.

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On the backstretch, the Thoroughbreds get the regal treatment of Dorothy and the gang in the Emerald City. Horses being manicured. Horses being hosed down, brushed up. Horses being walked about, talked about, scolded and molded.

Horses, horses, horses. The mere mention of the word makes Murray a little crazy, a little itchy, forces from him the perverse smile of a guy, Daily Racing Form in hand, who knows he just picked a sure thing.

Out here in Stable Land, he just could not help himself. Murray gazed about with the wonderment of a full-time fanatic.

“This place just puts me into a frenzy,” he later confided while schmoozing with some of his betting buddies along the backstretch. “In the world at large, there’s this great secret fraternity of horse degenerates from all walks of life. It’s like a Masonic Lodge. Horse-wild people who would rather be at the track than anywhere else. Those are the people I look for.”

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They are also the people he writes about. Since 1976, the year he published his first ode to the sport of kings--a book called “Horse Fever” about a hair-raising race season at his favorite track--the 65-year-old author has written a collection of novels exploring the behind-the-scenes relationships of his racing brethren.

But his is more than a one-track mind. A fascination with racing may be the roughest edge of the New York-born Italian-American, but he is also a novelist, essayist, magazine writer, teacher, translator, classically trained opera singer and former opera company manager.

There is just this thing about the horses. Murray owns them. Bets on them. Writes about them. Worships them.

His racetrack books--there have been five to date--tell gritty stories about the underworld of bookies and heartbroken handicappers as well as the dreamers, lost souls and oddball racetrack addicts. They’re books with insider names such as “Tip on a Dead Crab,” “The Hard Knocker’s Luck” and “When the Fat Man Sings,” all featuring a professional magician and amateur detective named Shifty Lou Anderson.

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Murray is at work on a sixth horse racing book, tentatively titled “The Wrong Horse,” which he calls an autobiographical journey through the American racing scene. The title comes from a statistic on career betting that holds that you can, at best, win only one of three races. In the others, you’ve picked the wrong horse.

For the 43-day Del Mar season, Murray’s schedule will vary by a nose, if at all. Rising before dawn at his suburban tract house in Del Mar Heights that, by his reckoning, lies 3.2 miles from the finish line, Murray will write about the horse life, using only a couple of No. 2 pencils and a yellow legal pad. Then, come post time, he is bound for the track.

He looks at home there. With his balding pate and racetrack tan, he gives the image of the rough-cut type who might lean in real close, invading your space, and solicit a tip after you have cashed a ticket.

On this day he wears a tan jacket with khaki pants. A thick patch of gray chest hair shows through his unbuttoned shirt collar.

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“The guy’s horse-crazy,” said Nick Giovinazzo, a retired college professor and Del Mar gambling pal Murray calls “Nicky.” “Out here at the track, you’ve got to be able to distinguish between the dreamers and the people who know. Bill Murray knows.”

Then there is the other side of William Murray.

The side that authored two well-regarded collections of essays on Italy and Italian life, casually etched accounts of the people he has met during his travels around there--the “terrorists, policemen, actors, politicians, . . . priests, and even simple law-abiding citizens.”

Murray lived in Italy for much of his first eight years and returned to Rome as a young man to receive operatic voice training. Since the mid-1960s, he has revisited his homeland now and then to write his engaging “Letter From Italy” as a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine.

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His most recent collection of essays, “The Last Italian,” has been compared by the New York Times to the work of famed essayist A.J. Liebling.

Fluent in Italian, Murray characterizes himself first as a Roman. Shades of other lives and experiences surface in the man, whose flat accent reveals the time he has lived in New York.

He comes from a long line of artists and writers. His maternal grandmother was a noted Italian journalist. His mother was an author and his Scotch-Irish father was an American scholar and agent who worked in entertainment and journalism.

Murray has carried on the tradition. He has translated into English a number of Italian plays and directed off-Broadway. While living in New York, he once ran a small opera company. During a 10-year stay in Los Angeles, he wrote several screenplays and saw some of his novels adapted for film and television.

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Since moving to San Diego a few years ago, he has taught creative writing at UC San Diego. He is always casting about for an opera part for which to audition.

In an interview at a Del Mar bookstore, Murray moves easily from one passion to the next. He talks of the power of holding the right operatic note before an audience--about the quality of the human voice. And the loneliness of producing the written word.

Despite his varied disciplines, Murray refuses to categorize himself except in one way. The horses, of course.

“Some people play bridge, others play chess. Well, I play the horses. And gambling is part of the trip.”

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At the track, he says, gamblers compete with those around them. “In Vegas, by contrast, you’re in competition with the casino. I’d cut off my hand before I’d put a quarter in a slot. But at the track, every race is like a great big crossword puzzle. And that aspect of it is relaxing.”

Murray has come a long way since the first day he went to the track. That would be with Harry Woodard, a wealthy playboy and horse “degenerate” who married Murray’s cousin.

Murray was an impressionable 16 and Harry swooshed into New York for a whirlwind visit. His dad, Murray recalls, let him tag along with Harry as a lesson--let him see the guy lose a wad of money.

“Well, we came home rolling in loot,” Murray said. “It was one of those unbelievable days. Harry won $14,000 and I took home $400, a lot of money for a kid in those days.

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“My dad was sitting up in bed when I ran into his room to tell him about it. I remember the disappointment on his face. I told him: ‘Geez dad, I don’t know why we don’t do this all the time.’ My father never spoke to Harry again.”

Win or lose, the track has been good to Murray. He even met his second wife, Alice, at the track a few years ago, sitting in the next box.

“So, with all my worldly savoir-faire I leaned over with a very smooth opening. I said, ‘Who do ya like?’ That day, she picked a couple of winners and I figured I better marry her.”

When the Del Mar season draws to a close, Murray will head off to witness another one of his loves--Italian life from his regular seat at a Roman street-side cafe. Or a piazza in Naples. Or Venice. And then, maybe New York.

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Come next year, when Del Mar opens its gates for yet another short-but-sweet season, he’ll be back, watching, writing, residing.


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