10/29/2001 1:00AM

Disaster kept at arm's length


ELMONT, N.Y. - When the screens went up, there was only one thought coursing through the Breeders' Cup crowd like a wave of nausea: "God, no. Not again. Not here."

Exogenous was on the ground, blood trickling from one ear, eyes lolling backwards, her leg scraped from its wrestling match with the railing at the mouth of the grandstand tunnel. Then the screens went up, just like the screens went up 11 years before, shielding the death of Go for Wand from the eyes of a traumatized audience.

"I thought she was dead," said Randy Schulhofer, who trains Exogenous alongside his Hall of Fame father, Scotty. "I thought this can't be happening."

New Yorkers have grown accustomed to worst-case scenarios. There are miles of screens and barriers in place along the busy streets of lower Manhattan, protecting visitors and residents from the grim excavation of the World Trade Center disaster site. The World Thoroughbred Championships, a comparatively benign exercise in pageant and personality, was supposed to provide a brief respite from the awful reality downtown. Then, as the field emerged for the very first race of the series, Exogenous was startled by something, reared, fell, and slammed her delicate gray head against the unforgiving ground.

This time, the screens kept the crowd from watching a sedated Exogenous being hauled into the equine ambulance. She was alive, and less than a half-hour later she was on her feet, wobbly and disoriented. But she was alive.

"I think she might be out of the woods," Randy Schulhofer said the next morning. "There were people with her all night long. She's still weak, and she can't walk. But she can get up and down on her own. I was really glad to see that."

Nearby, hanging her head over the webbing of the stall next to the Schulhofer stable office, Exogenous stood quietly with Joe Green at her dangling shank, taking his turn at sentry duty.

"Just need to make sure she doesn't spook at nothing and lose her balance," Green said. Exogenous turned a white-rimmed eye toward a visitor and sighed.

That was the best news of a Breeders' Cup that will be remembered not for its heartless treatment of Bobby Frankel, or for its relentless shade of Godolphin blue. It will be remembered most of all for the victory of Tiznow over Sakhee in a Breeders' Cup Classic that will be required viewing years from now when horsemen gather to define racing at its best.

"Dad! Dad! Do you know what you did?"

Amy Cooper was backpedaling through a crowd, trying to get her father's attention. Michael Cooper, the managing partner of the Tiznow ownership, smiled down at his daughter.

"No. What?" Cooper said. "I'm the shortest owner to win the Classic?"

Amy ignored her wise-cracking dad. "He's not only the first horse to win the Classic two times, he's also the first California Horse of the Year to win the Classic, and he's . . ."

Her words drifted off into the cold Long Island night as Cooper led his family back to Tiznow's barn. Tiznow entertained them by diving into his alfalfa as if he were ending a fast.

In a way, he was. It had been more than seven months since the Santa Anita Handicap, when Tiznow displayed the dominant traits that had carried him to victory over Giant's Causeway in the 2000 Classic. Tiznow was poised for an ambitious summer and fall. Then his back betrayed him, and he disappeared from view.

By the time Tiznow returned to the races, the world was about to become a different place. On Sept. 8, he finished third in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont. On Sept. 12, he was supposed to fly back home to California. No one, man or beast, flew home that day.

Like many of the visitors to the 2001 Championships, Mike Cooper made a special trip downtown to visit the disaster site. Locals can be forgiven if they consider us gawkers and ghouls. But for anyone who does not call New York home, it is a necessary pilgrimage, otherwise cool denial comes too easily.

"First there was the smell," Cooper said. "Then I felt a horrible sadness. And then, after awhile, I just kept getting madder and madder."

Everyone does what they can to heal the wounds, to raise the spirits. Exogenous will survive, thanks to the quick work of veterinarians and handlers on the scene. And Cooper, together with the children of the late Cecelia Straub Rubens, is doing his small part by vowing to keep Tiznow in training another year, leaving him in the inspired care of trainer Jay Robbins.

With that simple stroke, and with the help of their remarkable horse, they did more than all the Madison Avenue branding campaigns could ever hope to achieve. This was no longer the "Breeders' Cup," dedicated to some esoteric ideal of procreative excellence. This was truly a World Thoroughbred Championship, down and dirty, A-game required. And if the world thinks they can take it away from Tiznow next year, he'll meet them in Chicago.