03/21/2006 12:00AM

Another side to a style icon


TUCSON, Ariz. - The obituaries last week for Oleg Cassini, who died at 92, described him as you would expect: fashion designer extraordinaire and legendary lover, the man who dressed, and undressed, some of the most spectacularly beautiful women in the world.

He married actress Gene Tierney, was engaged to Grace Kelly, dated Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and Lana Turner, among others, and charmed women everywhere with his courtly manners, debonair presence, and exceedingly handsome countenance. He gained his fame and fortune as White House couturier to Jackie Kennedy, giving her the distinctive Cassini look that was seen and became recognized around the world.

In his autobiography, "In My Own Fashion," Cassini explained his passion for lovely ladies: "I don't think I'm a playboy - being a true playboy takes too much time - but I do think I have the aptitude for it."

I knew him as something totally different - as an accomplished horseman. He certainly had the aptitude for that, from the ponies of his childhood to his days as a cavalry officer at Fort Riley in Kansas during the war, to a savior of lame and used-up racehorses, and to his brief but bright career as a harness race driver in 1987.

He agreed to participate in a harness racing celebrity series that year named for George Plimpton, who had become famous as a man who tried everything as a participant, from pro football to boxing. Plimpton drove in the series, and so did George Steinbrenner, but neither they nor any of the other big names who competed were in the same league with Cassini, who knew horses and how to get the most from them.

Cassini turned out to be a fierce competitor, winning almost $10,000 with his drives and donating all of it to the horse-care association that got him started in the sport. He bought harness horses and drove a few himself.

The most memorable moment of that memorable year came for me not in Cassini's skilful drives at Yonkers Raceway or Saratoga Harness or Scioto Downs in Ohio or Pompano Park in Florida or Monticello in the Catskills or at Goshen Historic, home of the sport's Hall of Fame. It occurred in the paddock at The Meadowlands, the mecca of harness racing. Cassini, dressed in fashion-plate silks of his own design - black with vivid red diamonds on the sleeves - was studying past performances, reading the totally unimpressive credentials of a dramatically named but underaccomplished nag called Destiny Reef. It was his mount for the night.

Cassini looked the program over carefully, then made a comment that only a horseman could make. "He isn't a leaver, and he isn't a finisher," he said. "I hope, at least, he's a breather." Cassini climbed on the sulky, took the lines, and guided Destiny Reef to a third-place finish, the closest the pacer had gotten to the wire in many starts.

Cassini knew horses from childhood, because he and his brother Igor rode to school near Florence, Italy - where they lived with their Russian ?migr? parents - in an English buggy pulled by a gray pony. He knew polo ponies from playing the sport; Thoroughbreds from owning them; jumpers and hunters from steeplechase riding and serving as whipper-in, or a huntsman's assistant, with the Smithtown, N.Y., Hunt; and saddle horses from a lifetime on their backs. But he met harness horses because of a very pretty blonde - what else? - who knocked on the door of his spacious 48-acre estate in Oyster Bay on Long Island one spring day in 1985, without introduction, and asked if he would take in some trotters that had outlived their usefulness on the track.

Her name was Maureen Kleiman. She didn't know if Cassini knew anything about horses, but she knew he had dogs, so she figured he might like all animals. When she marched up to his front door and knocked, Cassini's dogs began barking furiously, and Cassini opened the door himself. He took one look at Maureen and invited her in.

After hearing her plea for a home for worn-out trotters and pacers, Cassini said, "Yes, of course," and Kleiman asked if he wanted references. Cassini's dogs had stopped barking and had accepted her happily the moment she entered, and Cassini told her, "My dogs are the only reference I need."

You can't forget a man who says something like that, or not treasure your memories of time spent with him. You also can't help missing him - deeply - and I do already.