03/24/2004 12:00AM

Homeland security far away

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Horse racing, like most American sporting endeavors, prides itself on being shielded from the outside world. Political upheaval and social strife tend to evaporate once inside the grandstand gates.

Of course, that's the point. Sports are supposed to relieve tedium, vent stress and nurture vicarious fantasies. What good are these toys - the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby - if not to provide escape?

When it comes to alternate realities, though, nothing compares to the Dubai World Cup. This is horse racing as sheer artifice, an elaborate equine pageant that springs fully formed from the imagination of a single man.

That man is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the defense minister of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince of Dubai, and the guy to know if you want to have a really good time at the races in his tiny, power-packed Persian Gulf nation.

It is Sheikh Mohammed who decreed that the World Cup should be the world's richest race, and so it was. It was Sheikh Mohammed who wanted a larger, more accommodatingly modern track at which to stage his race, and it was built. And it is Sheikh Mohammed who personally guarantees the safety of every foreign visitor who participates in his singular extravaganza.

In the eight previous runnings of the World Cup, there has never been an international incident relating to security. Nature staged its own coup in 1997 when heavy rains forced a four-day postponement. In 1996, Bill Mott and John Gosden ended up with nasty saddle burns after participating in camel races. Japanese champion Hokuto Vega suffered a fatal injury in 1997, while the 1998 champ Silver Charm bled badly in the 1999 running. And there was once a German competitor who had to be scratched after bruising a foot on a golf ball that had strayed onto the track from the infield links.

For the most part, though, the World Cup has been able to isolate itself from Middle Eastern politics and its violent side effects. With construction cranes outnumbering date palms, Dubai feels like an oasis of commerce and recreation.

Then, from Reuters news service under a Dubai dateline, this hits the fan:

Police in the United Arab Emirates arrested a man suspected of links to a security threat that temporarily shut down the U.S. embassy Wednesday.

"The embassy in Abu Dhabi [about 70 miles from Dubai] and the Consulate General in Dubai have temporarily suspended operations for Wednesday, March 24, in light of a specific threat to the embassy in Abu Dhabi," the U.S. mission said in a statement.

The United States Tuesday warned of a heightened threat of attacks against Americans in the Middle East and North Africa after the assassination Monday by Israel of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas.

And this, from CBS/Associated Press news services:

The State Department issued a new worldwide advisory for Americans overseas, saying they face increasing threats from terror groups such as Hamas and al Qaeda.

The worldwide caution said Washington is "deeply concerned about the heightened threat of terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and interests abroad," as well as violent anti-American demonstrations. It warned citizens "to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness."

The two best American horses - Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d' Oro - are at this moment in Dubai to lead the field postward Saturday night in the $6 million World Cup.

Richard Mandella is on the scene with Pleasantly Perfect, but Bobby Frankel, trainer of Medaglia d'Oro, stayed home in California, allowing assistants Jose Cuevas and Ruben Loza to do the hands-on honors. Frankel will be watching the World Cup unfold on TV on Saturday morning, around 9:20 a.m. Pacific, and he insists it won't bother him to enjoy it from afar.

"Believe me, I'll be just as happy," Frankel said. "It's not about me. It's about the horse. And he's a great horse who deserves to win a race like this. If he could win it would be unbelievable."

Frankel cited a head cold and a heavy domestic travel schedule over the coming weeks as the reason he passed on the long Dubai journey. He has been to the UAE twice before, so it's not as if he's gun-shy.

"The first time I was there I was by myself, so I had my driver take me to Abu Dhabi to look around," Frankel recalled of his visit in 2000. "I went by the palace where the head sheikh [Sheikh Zayed] lives. He had a tank sitting outside his home."

Tanks, heavily armed guards, roaming peacocks, racing camels, and monuments to the majesty of the Thoroughbred, plus a $6 million horse race played out in the most volatile region of the world. That is the World Cup experience.

Frankel and his patron, Edmund Gann, certainly weighed the pros and cons before dispatching their star attraction. But as Frankel noted on Wednesday, the same day the U.S. consulate nearest to the track was closed, "It's gotten worse since the horse left. It makes you wonder if it's worth it. I just hope everybody makes it back safe."