08/30/2002 12:00AM

Of gift horses and muckraking


DEL MAR, Calif. - From The New York Times, dateline Washington, Aug. 28:

"The royal family [of Saudi Arabia] has considered presenting the racehorse that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes this year as a gift to the victims' families, according to one advisor to the family. The horse, War Emblem, which was owned by Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who died in July, would be part of the commemoration at Ground Zero."

Although denied as "baseless" by a spokesman for The Thoroughbred Corp. of the late Prince Ahmed, the idea of using War Emblem as a token of goodwill has been widely hailed as a touching and sensitive gesture on the part of the Saudi royals.

And while neither Bob Baffert nor Victor Espinoza were tossed in as part of the deal, the imagination soars at the thought of groom Roberto Luna leading a heavily tranquilized War Emblem down Broadway on the afternoon of Sept. 11, to the place where the Twin Towers once stood.

As a rule, foreign governments express their friendship for the American people through a complex network of lobbyists. Contributions - in the form of cash, jewelry, cars, and, yes, even livestock - eventually trickle down to the general population. Every so often, regular working stiffs will discover a folded 20 in an old sport coat, or an abandoned puppy in a dumpster. These would be examples of largesse from abroad, anonymous tokens of genuine esteem.

Now that the Saudis have floated the notion of donating a Thoroughbred to help soothe the pain of the terrorist attacks (and The New York Times took the bait), watch for the following headlines in the near future. There may be a trend:

* Executives of Exxon Corp., still wracked with guilt over the 10.8-million-gallon oil spill and ecological nightmare caused by the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound, have offered to retrieve Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood from his life of seclusion, tie him to a team of racing mules, and have him dragged through the frozen streets of Anchorage. Environmentalists call the offer too little too late, but expressed interest if it were Exxon executives rather than Hazelwood hitched to the mules.

* In a joint press conference called to answer criticism of their consistently violent and tasteless product, the heads of the major Hollywood studios announced the creation of a production company that will be dedicated exclusively to projects depicting the Thoroughbred racehorse.

"Horses are wholesome," said one studio chief. "They'll help take the heat off while we crank out the next Vin Diesel picture, or get Ben Affleck to take off his pants. Heck, we know 'Seabiscuit' is going to be a smash, and they haven't even shot a foot of film."

Plans were unveiled for a remake of such classics as "The Longshot," "The Heist," and "Hot to Trot," with Adam Sandler set to step into the role originally crafted by Bobcat Goldthwaite. There is also buzz about a re-release of the 1949 classic "The Story of Seabiscuit," digitally remastered and redubbed, with Whoopi Goldberg's voice coming out of Shirley Temple's mouth.

* In a dramatic turnabout from his earlier stance of complete innocence, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay has apologized for the collapse of the energy company and vowed to make restitution. Citing the Japanese business philosophy of assuming personal responsibility for corporate failure, Lay has promised to bet a "Texas-sized chunk" of his remaining fortune on Medaglia d'Oro in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and then donate his winnings to a fund established to support the families of former Enron employees rendered destitute by the collapse.

"I just hope Frankel doesn't start talking up his chances and ruin the odds," Lay told the Houston Chronicle. "We've got to think of the children."

* And finally, consumer activist Ralph Nader, wearing a weathered set of Farmer John overalls and holding a muckrake, appeared before a gathering of Democratic Party activists to take the blame for the election of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race. Nader's Green Party campaign has been blamed by Democrats for diverting enough votes from Vice President Al Gore to have made the difference.

"I made a mess of it," Nader said. "But since there is no way of undoing the damage, I can only offer the sweat of my brow in symbolic penance for my miscalculated deeds."

Nader has arranged with Triple Crown Productions to clean the stalls of the entrants throughout the week leading up to the 2003 Kentucky Derby, both shavings and straw.

"Shoveling the manure of these beautiful creatures is the least I can do," Nader said. "And it is especially appropriate that most of them are owned by Republican Party donors. I am grateful, however, that there is a 20-horse limit to the size of the field."