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Randy Harvey

Regarding Race, Stick to Horses

June 07, 2002|Randy Harvey

ELMONT, N.Y. — In a ceremony outside trainer D. Wayne Lukas' barn at Belmont Park on Wednesday, the proud citizens who own Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen unveiled a horse blanket emblazoned with the letters FDNY in red and NYPD in blue. Two firefighters present obviously appreciated the gesture, even if Proud Citizen didn't particularly relish sharing attention with them. Before the ceremony ended, he had taken a bite out of each blanket.

More than a gesture was the announcement last week by Proud Citizen's owners that they will donate at least $100,000, along with any earnings from Saturday's Belmont Stakes beyond that, to the Twin Towers Fund.

Cynics, of course, are already questioning the motives for such a public display of charity, wondering if perhaps the owners are attempting to establish Proud Citizen as the hometown horse as opposed to War Emblem.

Under pre-9/11 circumstances, War Emblem undoubtedly would be the crowd favorite of the 90,000 or so spectators expected Saturday at Belmont Park. Having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, he is attempting to become only the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first since 1978. People like to feel as if they are part of history.

But do people in this country want to share that feeling with an Arab? It is a sad commentary on the time in which we are living that such a question could be posed in connection with an event as benign as a horse race. But the issue has been raised because War Emblem is owned by a Saudi Arabian prince, Ahmed bin Salman, who, despite his pro-American pronouncements, is not welcome by all at Belmont Park.

After War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby last month, Jimmy Breslin, the famous columnist for Newsday on Long Island, wrote, "It is understood that these Saudis won't have the class of a goat. If this Bin Salman had any, he would stay away and not run his horse out of respect.... A planned assembly of firefighters at Belmont Park might send the prince away, and with the horse he rode in on."

Proud Citizen's owners certainly did not endorse such inflammatory commentary Wednesday. But, whether intended or not, there clearly was an "us vs. them" tone to some of their remarks.

Claiming that the Belmont will not be a typical horse race, David Cornstein, who owns Proud Citizen with wealthy developers Bob Baker and Bill Mack, said, "We're three regular guys from New York versus a prince from Saudi Arabia."

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Of course, this will not be a typical horse race.

But the reasons this race is transcendent has nothing to do with the owners or their nationalities and everything to do with the horses they rode in on and their trainers.

Bob Baffert, who trains War Emblem, and Lukas, who trains Proud Citizen, are two of the most successful and compelling figures in this or any other sport. Lukas shares the record for trainers with 13 victories in Triple Crown races, but Baffert is coming up fast on the inside with eight. This is his third opportunity to sweep the Triple Crown, having barely missed with losses by Silver Charm and Real Quiet in the Belmont.

Baffert and Lukas are better friends now than in the past, probably because they wouldn't have any other trainers to talk to if they didn't talk to each other. Both are resented for all the media attention they receive.

Trainer Murray Johnson, who will saddle Perfect Drift on Saturday, said he attended a birthday party recently in which Baffert's picture was attached to the pinata. Johnson wouldn't say whose birthday it was, but, among those who make their living in horse racing, it could have been almost anybody's.

Lukas, though, is too secure to belong to the Anybody But Baffert club. That doesn't mean it will be fine with him if Baffert wins Saturday.

"People have asked me all week, 'Wouldn't it be great to see a Triple Crown winner?' " Lukas said Wednesday. "My answer is, 'No, not at my expense.' "

Just as his chance to sweep the Triple Crown in 1999 with Charismatic was spoiled in the Belmont, Lukas could play the spoiler this time. Proud Citizen was second in the Derby and third in the Preakness. He is the second favorite here at 5-1. War Emblem is even money to win.

"When we go over there at 5:30 [EDT] on Saturday, he'll look down and know he has us to contend with," Lukas said of War Emblem. "And we'll know we have to be concerned with him."

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But for anyone to characterize this race as American vs. Arab is un-American.

Since Sept. 11, the debate over racial profiling has become a tug-of-war for the soul of the country. It is an important, even necessary, debate, but not one that belongs on the playing fields or racetracks of America.

Bin Salman has not been drawn publicly into the discussion. A nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, he has raced horses in the United States for several years and has a residence in Bradbury, close to Santa Anita. Loyalty oaths, we can only hope, will not be part of homeland security, but there is no evidence to dispute his statement that he is pro-American.

Some have suggested that he could buy favor by matching the donation of Proud Citizen's owners to the Twin Towers Fund. That is his business. It should be pointed out, however, that their generous contribution is hardly unprecedented for horse owners.

A prominent family donating earnings from last year's Breeders' Cup at Belmont, which was held six weeks after the terrorist attacks, to 9/11 charities was the Maktoums of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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