10/21/2003 12:00AM

Hear that? It's the sound of cash


TUCSON, Ariz. - Along with you, I read the headlines of the week, and wondered.

With Azeri and Cactus Ridge joining Empire Maker and Mineshaft and Candy Ride and Bird Town at the Missing Persons Bureau at the Breeders' Cup, how can Thoroughbred racing retain its stars long enough to build charisma, the essence of stardom and sustained interest?

Is Robin Smullen right that Funny Cide was "totally awesome" in his last work for the Cup, or is Steve Crist right that the up-and-down gelding has a better chance of finishing last than first? How long can Jack Knowlton firing up the old bus make news?

With legislators in Ohio and Maryland and Pennsylvania and Massachusetts battling among themselves over whether to give slots to what some have called "greedy track operators" or take the spoils for themselves and their states, what does the future hold for those key racing sites?

With the feds pressing hard and questioning a former counsel of NYRA, and the Albany Times-Union calling an indictment "likely," does the recurrence of the old rumors that Aqueduct's days are numbered carry credence? If so, it would be like losing an old down-on-his-luck friend.

Is Tim Smith right in attributing a 3.4 percent increase in handle largely to Seabiscuit? Most of those I know who admired the book and the movie thought they were well written and innovatively produced, but none of them showed any inclination to rush to their nearest racetrack or OTB to place a bet.

Horse racing can burn a hole in one's heart, for sure.

You don't have to have played horses to cry for the passing of Willie Shoemaker, although it helps if you did because you could understand his greatness. You don't have to be a teenage girl in love with horses to share the sadness of the fate of a Ferdinand or an Exceller.

But deeper down, horse racing is not about the sentiment of death or the pounding of hooves on a cushioned track or the nobility of the breed. That was the message the ill-fated NTRA commercial of a few years back tried to convey, with Rip Torn holding a clod of turf to his ear and asking, "Can you hear it? Can you hear it?"

Unfortunately there are not enough people out there, other than those of us who can hear it, to keep this game going by listening to the thunder of hooves.

There must be, like it or not, more who thrill to the cashing of a $2 win ticket, or an exacta, or - like the five guys from Petaluma, Calif., who hit a million and a half payoff on an offtrack score on a record pick six from Del Mar - who want to win big bucks.

This is not a particularly popular notion with those of us who love horses for what they are - gallant, noble, courageous, beautiful - but it is a hard fact of life.

It was brought home to me not by the stories I mentioned at the start of this piece, but in a feature written last Saturday by Jay Heater in the Contra Costa Times in Northern California. I don't know Heater, but his lead was music: "Horse players everywhere should remember the two words uttered by Craig Miller on Aug. 1 at the Italian Affair restaurant in Santa Rosa. 'I'm in.' "

Miller, it turns out, was responding to the urging of two horseplaying friends at lunch who wanted 10 others headed for the races at the Sonoma County Fair to toss in 25 bucks each to play the big carryover at Del Mar.

Only 5 of the 12 agreed to do it, but Craig Miller was one of them. He got $327,826.50 for his $25 investment, as did the four others who came up with the dough.

In writing about it, Jay Heater said that one of the two who suggested the bet, a retired accountant named John Dado, told him, "I still think I'm dreaming and that somebody is going to shake me and wake me up."

The second ringleader who urged his buddies to join in, an insurance broker named Jim Archbold, summed up the story of the Petaluma Five, as the winners now are known, by telling Heater that the message is a simple one: "Even the little guy can win big."

That is the real message, whether in Santa Rosa with the Petaluma Five or across the country in Sackets Harbor with the Funny Cide crew.

That story doesn't go lame, or get sick, or get retired to stud.

Absent the hype, it is what keeps this game alive, and all of us, whether we write about it or bet on it or merely worship at its shrine, need to keep that in mind.