09/22/2001 12:00AM

Easing back into the racing world


I didn't think twice about returning to Belmont Park when racing did this past Wednesday. If you have spent more days of your adult life at Aqueduct, Belmont, or Saratoga than anywhere else, it is where you naturally wanted to be on Wednesday.

It appears that other regulars and lapsed regulars felt the same way. Attendance was 32 percent higher than the third Wednesday of last September, but the handle was not. People were there to gamble but were there for something else as well, perhaps the comfort of seeing familiar faces you take for granted.

There was an appropriate ceremony and moments of silence before the races began, but the horseplaying community is not big on group hugs and grief counseling. About as much heart as anyone would wear on his sleeve was to shake hands with people you usually just nod at, and nod at the ones you usually don't acknowledge at all. Lifetime feuds, slights, and root-againsts were temporarily suspended.

It helped that the racing was interesting enough for distraction and argument. A couple of nice 2-year-olds, whose weekend stakes appearances had been canceled along with racing, came back to dominate allowance races. Pentatonic came off the bench to beat a tough-trip Secret Status in a stakes-class allowance, and those who bet the runner-up felt the winner should have come down for bothering the third-place filly. (She shouldn't have, and she didn't.)

After not making a bet for 11 days, I was eager to help the national economic recovery effort. The passion for finding overlays was a little slow to come back, but that won't last long. The next day, I returned to our offices a few blocks from the site of the terrorist attacks. The recovery efforts are amazing, but the scene nearby is worse than anything you've seen on television. The green expanses of Belmont seem more appealing than ever.

A community's generosity

Whether or not racetracks outside New York did the right thing by returning to business so rapidly after the Sept. 11 attacks, many individuals and organizations in the racing community have already done a number of generous things in its wake.

Keeneland and the NTRA both quickly organized fund-raising mechanisms that have already generated significant contributions. Owners including Coolmore and Tracy Farmer have pledged a portion of their star runners' purse earnings to relevant charities, while others, including Sheikh Mohammed ($5 million) and Harry Mangurian ($1 million), have made extraordinary personal contributions to relief efforts. This has all been done quietly and with dignity, at a time when many outside racing in the media and public life could use refresher courses in those virtues.

The Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in New York Oct. 27 will raise additional millions for those in need, and the generosity of the racing world will be one of the factors making it a memorable day regardless of how the races turn out.

Global series never took off

The global sport lost a significant sponsor when Emirates Air Lines announced Friday that its sponsorship of the 12-race international Emirates Racing Series will end this year. Officials for the organizations involved alluded to the recent attacks and called the sponsorship cancelation a mutual decision. The idea seems to be that airlines and the Arab world are troublesome images these days. Fair enough.

Another sponsor is being sought, but it may be a tough sell. This series never seemed to capture the imagination of anyone beyond its backers and more money won't help. These point-system competitions rarely if ever work in racing, and a series where no horse is likely to run in even half the events seems doomed at the outset. Only a few global-racing fanatics are ever going to keep track of these far-flung contests or even care who is running in many of them.

Better news on the sponsorship front came with the announcement of a second Breeders' Cup race sponsor. One firm with close ties to racing had already signed up for what will be called the Bessemer Trust Juvenile, and now an outfit with no previous ties to the sport will sponsor the Penske Auto Centers Sprint.

A Penske official reportedly said that one of the appealing things about the sponsorship was that racing's demographics are a good fit with the company. One can only hope this does not mean that market research indicates that racetrackers drive cars in unusually frequent need of service and repair.