03/23/2006 1:00AM

A focus on what it's all about


ARCADIA, Calif. - These are strange and passionate times for Burt Bacharach, the self-described "nice guy who's written love songs all his life," now turned virulent antiwar activist.

Bacharach has been crisscrossing the country, performing a series of concerts highlighted by selections from his latest album, "At This Time," a dramatic departure that brews anger, sadness, and fear for his children's future with quiet strains of hope. Bacharach fans who show up to savor "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "Alfie" certainly get their money's worth, and then some.

"I don't cheat the audience," Bacharach said from his L.A. home this week. "They hear the songs they expect to hear. Then I've been doing four or five things from the album, even in red states like North Carolina. Nobody's thrown anything at me yet, but I never knock the administration onstage."

Maybe not in so many words, but there is very little interpretation required for such Bacharach lyrics as, "Who are these people that destroy everything / And sell off the future / for whatever it brings / And what kind of leaders can't admit when they're wrong / Make 'em stop," from "Who Are These People?" featuring Elvis Costello.

"I'm speaking up, doing what little I can do," Bacharach said. "What I'm trying to do is just be a messenger, get the word out. If I get 10 or 12 people to come backstage with the record in their hand, that's great."

In the last month, Bacharach has played for audiences in places like Vancouver, San Francisco, Raleigh, Phoenix, and Costa Mesa. Next week, he'll be on the road again to Florida, New Jersey, and New York. This summer, during the Del Mar season, he will make his traditional appearance with the San Diego Symphony.

On Saturday, however, Bach-arach will allow himself a brief escape to Santa Anita Park, where his turf horse One Off, a 6-year-old son of Barathea trained by Neil Drysdale, runs in the $200,000 San Luis Rey Handi-cap. The mile and one-half on firm ground also brings out Atlando, T.H. Approval, and King's Drama, the first three finishers in last month's San Luis Obispo Handicap.

Compared with the concerns of ending a war and restoring hope for the future, horse racing would seem to rank as a truly trivial pursuit. Bacharach, though, takes it seriously as a competitive endeavor, and he has been rewarded in the past by occasional bursts of undeniable bliss.

Bacharach's racing history dates back to the late 1960's and early 1970's when his small band of horses were part of a Charlie Whittingham stable that included such turf monsters as Cougar II, Fiddle Isle, and Daryl's Joy.

In 1983, Bacharach campaigned Heartlight No. One, winner of the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly. In 1994, the light blue Bacharach silks were carried to victory in such major events as the San Felipe, the Super Derby, and the Hollywood Futurity by homebreds Soul of the Matter and After-noon Deelites.

One Off has a ways to go before he joins such company, although he has arrived on the Southern Califor-nia turf scene at an opportune moment. The ranks are not particularly deep. There was a time that a former British handicapper like One Off would be lucky to score at allowance levels at Santa Anita. These days, the owner of such a horse can dream big.

"I'm hoping," Bacharach said, "and Neil says he's doing well. If he runs good, it could set him up for the San Juan Capistrano."

Even if One Off jumps up to capture one of Santa Anita's remaining turf prizes, he would still take a backseat to the race that Bacharach calls his "best moment" in the sport.

Saturday's running of the Dubai World Cup marks the 10th anniversary of the night Bacharach's Soul of the Matter came within a half-length of defeating Cigar in the first running of the desert classic. At one point in the race, deep in the long stretch, Soul of the Matter bobbed his nose in front of the champion, then surrendered only in the final, thrilling yards.

Bacharach, resplendent in a pale blue suit, tears streaming down his face, descended from the Nad Al Sheba stands with his wife, Jane, to the cheers of the locals. Soul of the Matter, along with third-place L'Carriere, was led into the walking ring for special recognition.

"Unforgettable," Bacharach said. "I still get chills."

Bacharach sees no reason why it can't happen again. But he knows it takes focus, commitment and a certain amount of luck. Right now, his head and heart live elsewhere.

"I'm looking to get a couple more horses," he said. "I've just been so busy with this album, and becoming such a political activist. I've been on the road more than I've ever been. And it's okay. Things need to be said. If I hated what was going on before, it ain't nothing compared to what I feel now.

"The audiences hear it, though. I really think they do," Bacharach added. "A soldier the other night down at Pala" - near San Diego - "came up to me and said, 'I've been in the Army for 30 years. It's all wrong what's going on. Thanks for taking a stand.' "