07/22/2002 12:00AM

Goodnight, sweet prince


DEL MAR, Calif. - Amazing, isn't it, how life goes on? The death of Ahmed Salman, at the age of 43, will put nary a dent in the giddy atmosphere of Del Mar's opening day crowd on Wednesday. Dark thoughts are strictly forbidden, along with glass containers. Besides, with all those festive hats, there's no room for the dank gloom of mortality.

Anyway, Salman was a Del Mar opening day kind of guy. To him, if nothing else, the game was supposed to be fun. Forever wedged in the middle of an entourage, traveling with his own rugby scrum, Salman was the tall one with the pencil moustache, the slick hair, and the air of bemused delight, as if he couldn't quite believe in his own good fortune.

He was born royal, and he enjoyed the perks, but he always hoped no one held it against him. He yearned for acceptance in the hermetically sealed world of American racing. He hired people to tell other people bad news. He was educated in America - California, no less - but as the product of a privileged upbringing, translation was not always clear.

Above all, he exercised his passion for horses and for horse racing because he could, and he did it without spending an excessive amount of time dwelling on the bottom line. The money was there because his family ran a country swimming in oil. Go ahead, resent the fact. Then try walking to work. It helped to think of him as just plain Ahmed, a fellow with plenty of money and a thing for fast ponies. In the Middle East, it seems as if titles like prince and sheikh are a dime a dozen, tossed around like "coach" and "CEO" in America. What really set him apart was his ambition. There were few prizes in racing that escaped his imagination.

At the time of his death, he was well on his way to realizing the highest possible goals. He already had taken two Distaffs and a Juvenile from the Breeders' Cup, Derbies from both England and Kentucky, a Belmont and a Travers from New York, a pair of Preakness trophies from Maryland, a Santa Anita Derby from California, and even an Illinois Derby from America's heartland.

Salman's earliest flirtation with racing went back to the mid-1980's, when he raced as the Universal Stable. His Simple Magic won the Landaluce Stakes. His Deputy Governor won the Del Mar Derby and the Eddie Read. His R. Awacs threw a scare into Copelan in the Prevue Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Salman left the sport for a few years to establish himself as a businessman, then returned as The Thoroughbred Corp., an all encompassing stable name fairly bursting with hubris. For the past six seasons the horses backed him up big time, and he returned the favor, pumping millions into sales and private transactions.

The terrorist attacks of last September found Salman in Kentucky, poised to unload once again in the Keeneland yearling sales. As a member of the Saudi Arabian ruling family, he was considered to be in immediate and dire jeopardy. Federal agents kept Salman secure in his Lexington hotel until it was considered safe for him to return to Riyadh.

The following spring, Salman returned to Kentucky, this time to hoist the Derby trophy aloft after the unlikely victory of War Emblem. By the time War Emblem reached the Belmont Stakes with a shot at the Triple Crown, the background of the owner was being scrutinized as closely as the speed of the horse he owned. His uncle, after all, was the Saudi king.

In story after story, Salman was being held to answer for Saudi Arabia's apparent inability to stem homegrown terrorism. He protested that he was not a politician, but a businessman. His business, however, was publishing, and the questions turned to his editorial control over published stories that were easily interpreted as inflammatory to American sensibilities.

Racing and the real world rarely mix, but there was no avoiding the prickly symbolism of a Saudi prince going for the Triple Crown just a few miles from where the towers fell. War Emblem lost and Salman stayed home, citing "family business" through his racing manager, Richard Mulhall.

Undoubtedly, Salman would have faced the same issue later this summer if one of his prize 2-year-olds made it to the closing-day Del Mar Futurity. Closing day is Wednesday, Sept. 11.

Better Salman should be remembered for his final appearance at Del Mar last year. It was Wednesday, Sept. 5. He wore a white suit with a bold green and black striped tie, matching the colors of his silks.

Officer gave Salman an impressive win in the Del Mar Futurity, but the real star of the day was Point Given, Salman's pride and joy, who had just been retired because of an injury suffered while winning the Travers. The big red colt was taking a final turn in the spotlight, parading in the paddock and then onto the track for one last hurrah.

"Look at him," Salman said. "This is very hard for me. You can only hope to get lucky again. And I have been very lucky."

He wasn't kidding. At the time, he didn't even know War Emblem existed.