11/03/2006 12:00AM

Horses run races, not owners

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Maktoum family of Dubai has been buying racehorses since 1976, dominating European racing in tandem with Britain's Coolmore group for nearly as long, and bringing their best horses to the Breeders' Cup since their popular Pebbles won the second running of the Turf back in 1985. It took until this year, though, after winning their first Triple Crown races and sending out Bernardini as the heavy favorite in the Classic, for their racing operations to become a hot-button story in the general American news media.

Last Monday, the New York Times ran a rare front-page article on horse racing, reporting on the Maktoums' positive economic impact within the Kentucky horse-breeding community. The next day, the Washington Post ran an opinion column by Andrew Beyer, reprinted in Wednesday's Daily Racing Form, in which Beyer said he personally finds it unappealing to root for so vast an operation with virtually unlimited financing.

These themes of wealth and resources recurred in other coverage throughout the week. Friday's editions of USA Today carried a story about Lava Man, characterizing his bid to beat the "bluebloods" as basic class warfare. (On the following page of the newspaper was a full-page color advertisement for the sheikhs' Emirates Airlines, the sponsor of two Cup races and numerous racing telecasts.)

Beyer's column did not exactly endear him to Kentucky's horse community, which, as the Times' Joe Drape put it, "out of equal parts self-interest and self-regard . . . will be rooting the sheik's horses home." It has become virtually every commercial breeder's dream to produce a sales yearling who will set off a bidding war between the Maktoums and the Coolmore group, and success in the sport's highest-profile events is in part positive reinforcement for the next round of spending.

Beyond writing big checks, however, the Maktoums have made themselves popular here by quietly underwriting various local charitable endeavors and being sensitive to the potential tensions surrounding a strong Arab-world presence in America at this delicate geopolitical time. Sheikh Mohammed was at Keeneland buying yearlings the morning of 9/11, and his family was honored with a special Eclipse Award four months later for their generosity in funding aid to victims of those events.

None of this will, or should, prevent some horseplayers from rooting against the Maktoums as powerhouses and plutocrats, any more than it would keep most baseball fans in at least 49 states from loathing the New York Yankees even if George Steinbrenner were canonized tomorrow. The notion that athletic competition is a metaphor for an eternal struggle between virtuous underdogs and bloated overlords is as old and enduring as the hills, especially in racing.

Two generations ago, my late father-in-law routinely railed against Calumet Farm and its seeming monopoly on champions. When Woody Stephens was winning every Belmont Stakes in the early 1980's, rival trainers groused that he was unfairly handed a passel of impeccable yearlings every season. One of those grousers was D. Wayne Lukas, who a few years later would find himself the target of similar resentment for running five horses in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. More recently, Bobby Frankel was suspected of having made a pact with Satan when he won a quarter of the nation's Grade 1 races in 2003, and this year it's Todd Pletcher who is somehow ruining racing by having too many good horses.

The flip side is equally fatuous. Several of the most popular horses of recent years who were celebrated as rag-clad misfits owned by humble hoboes were in fact perfectly well-bred specimens campaigned by prosperous businessmen and millionaires. Of course that reality doesn't make for as heart-tugging a mass-consumption morality play. At least some of those owners are probably now out for life on their racing investments. The Maktoums could sweep a few Breeders' Cup cards and still be swimming in red ink, but they're in it more for the competition and their enjoyment of Thoroughbreds than as a sensible business investment.

Personally, I like to root for the athletes instead of their uniforms and try to pay as little attention as possible to who owns, rides, or trains a racehorse unless it affects their price or performance. Others embrace the opposite approach. As the sometimes misanthropic handicapper Harvey Pack likes to say, "The older I get, the less often I have to bet - because there are so many people to root against."

Either way, it's a free country and it's your choice. Horse racing, like entertaining reading, is all about differences of opinion.