06/07/2002 11:00PM

Family obligation keeps Salman home

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Prince Ahmed bin Salman, whose Thoroughbred Corp. owns War Emblem, did not attend Saturday's Belmont Stakes, instead choosing to remain in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Representatives of the prince said security was not a concern, and pointed out that a younger brother, Prince Faisal bin Salman, was in attendance.

"There's nothing sinister about this," said Terrence Collier, a representative of the prince. "The fact he sent his younger brother in his place shows that it's not about security. War Emblem has done more than expected. The prince kept putting off commitments at home. He missed one family commitment to come to the Preakness. This time, he had a family commitment at home that he couldn't avoid."

Both Collier and Richard Mulhall, the president of The Thoroughbred Corp., said the prince decided Friday morning not to travel to the United States for the Belmont. Mulhall said the prince had made hotel reservations in New York City. He said the prince had not been in the United States since leaving for Saudi Arabia following the Preakness.

There had been a few negative stories written in recent weeks regarding War Emblem's Saudi Arabian connections, Mulhall noted. Mulhall said he had discussed security issues with the prince and had added some private security to his detail, but said security was not a deciding factor in the prince's absence.

"I think a lot more people like him than dislike him," Mulhall said.

Packed house

Delightful weather and the chance to see history made in the 134th running of the Belmont Stakes was the perfect combination to draw a record crowd to Belmont Park of 103,222 on Saturday.

By 1 p.m., there wasn't a patch of grass available to sit on in Belmont Park's expansive backyard area. On the apron facing the track, a mass of fans, with little standing room separating them, stretched from the top of the stretch to the clubhouse turn.

The backyard crowd lounged on blankets and lawn chairs, with their coolers stocked with beer and soda, an arm's reach away. With the temperature in the low 70's and crystal-blue skies, many in the crowd were soaking up the sun, while others were studiously handicapping the 12-race card.

Kate Schultz, 25, from nearby Seaford, N.Y., came with her brother Keith. Neither of the Schultzes had ever been to Belmont Park before, but thought Saturday was an ideal time to check out the track. They said the throngs of people didn't put them off.

"I've been hearing about the race in the newspapers and television," Kate Schultz said. "We really don't know anything about racing, but this seems like a fun crowd. I guess my pick is [War Emblem]."

For every newcomer to the sport, there seemed to be several die-hard racing fans in the crowd. Bob Klusman, 53, traveled by car from Cleveland to root on War Emblem in his quest to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Klusman said he happened to be visiting friends in Chicago when War Emblem won the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park. Klusman also was in Louisville to see War Emblem's upset in the Kentucky Derby.

"I wasn't going to miss this," said Klusman, who had a seat in the grandstand at about the eighth pole. "Of course, I'm rooting for the [Bob] Baffert horse. This place will be rocking if he wins."

- additional reporting by Karen Johnson