09/28/2001 12:00AM

A hero who deserves to be remembered


ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that the popular media has discarded ballplayers, supermodels, and billionaires as cultural icons, and re-discovered the old-fashioned heroism in firefighters, police, and selfless volunteers, maybe it's a good time to go forth with the candidacy of the Thoroughbred racehorse as an idol fit for mass adoration.

There is precedent. Secretariat came along when Americans were being psychologically assaulted by the endgame in Vietnam and the beginning of the Watergate scandal. His comforting presence on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated allowed the public to be doting fans without pausing to consider any political ramifications.

Seabiscuit lived in an era when press hype ruled and sports heroes were inflated to dimensions larger than life. His tale of rags to riches in the face of a depressed economy struck the perfect tone with a public that was flocking to Busby Berkley musicals and fighting pre-war jitters.

Kelso was like the New York Yankees of the early 1960's. They were expected to win, and they did, year after year, inspiring in their dogged consistency. Even so, fans never took Kelso for granted. In the final victory of his career, the 1965 Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct, they clapped in cadence with every stride as he drew off to win by 8 1/2 lengths. Somehow they knew they'd never see his kind again.

There have been a few other horses who stepped past the rails to inspire a broad base of fans above and beyond their natural skepticism.

Near the end of Cigar's 16-race winning streak, during the election year of 1996, signs began popping up at racetracks that read "Cigar for President," when the other choices were Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Skip Away was hardly the first horse with his own web site and his own fan club. But neither Carolyn nor Sonny Hine ceased to be amazed by the number of lives their champ seemed to touch. And never forget that there was talk of war in Australia when Phar Lap, their national treasure, died a mysterious death while in California preparing for a race.

Heroes have been regional. The name Fourstardave meant very little outside the borders of New York. But at Saratoga, where he won 10 races over a stretch of eight consecutive seasons, from 1987 through 1994, Fourstardave could have led an assault on Fort Ticonderoga. On the day of his retirement parade, they didn't just walk him past the stands. They took him across the street to Siro's.

Imagine, then, how Mary Bradley must have felt on that first afternoon at Santa Anita, some 30 years ago, when fans in the infield unfurled a banner emblazoned with "Go, Cougar!!!" and hoisted it above the infield fence, in full view of the grandstand.

"I couldn't believe it," Bradley said this week from her home in Rancho Santa Fe. "It must have been a hundred feet long. I'd never seen anything like it."

If she had, it would have been during a "Monday Night Football" telecast, or an Ohio State home game. Such a shameless public display of affection for an otherwise disinterested animal should give all racing people pause. What is wrong with the business when it can not produce more stars like Cougar?

Bradley answered that question a long time ago. When asked, after another dramatic Cougar victory, if she had been waiting all her life for such a horse to come along, she replied, "No, I didn't wait any time at all, because I didn't really expect it. There are not that many superhorses in the world."

She got that right. But for a stretch during 1971 and into 1973, Cougar was certainly one of them. His record survives scrutiny even from afar. After

12 races in his native Chile, he ran 38 times in the U.S., winning 15 times, on both dirt and turf, and hitting the board in each of his last 20 races. A lot of people cashed on Cougar.

He was trained by Charlie Whittingham and handled most often by Bill Shoemaker, who confessed to sleepless nights before riding Cougar.

"He wasn't an easy horse to ride," Shoemaker said. "He was kind of high-headed, with a real high knee action. You had to go along with him until he decided to make his run. It might not be the same every time, but you knew he was going to make it."

Cougar was champion grass horse of 1972 and the leading money winner in the country in 1971. Upon his retirement in 1973, Cougar was ranked eighth on the all-time earnings list. As a stallion, he produced a Kentucky Derby winner, Gato del Sol. But for some reason, the racing Hall of Fame has never called.

"That hurts my feelings," confessed Bradley. "That, and the fact he has never had a race named for him, not even in California."

Such slights are typical in racing, a sport with notoriously selective memory. For consolation, Bradley can turn any time to her scrapbooks full of Cougar fan mail, complete with crayon drawings from school kids who adored the horse they called "The Big Cat."

Sunday marks another running of the race that used to be called the Oak Tree Invitational. It has become the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Handicap and shortened from 12 to 10 furlongs, but that does not change the fact that Cougar won it first in 1971 and then again in 1972. The Cougar crowd was out in force both days, drawn by a hero that never let them down.