06/02/2005 12:00AM

Making history without the fanfare


NEW YORK - When Ghostzapper crossed the finish line 6 1/4 lengths in front in the Met Mile at Belmont Park last Monday, it was 5:38 p.m. on the last day of a holiday weekend, but no one was in a hurry to go home.

It was one of those rare moments at the track where everyone seemed to want to linger and bask in the moment, and then seek out whoever has been going to the track even longer than you have to share and confirm what they had just seen: one of the ones, the best older horse since Cigar, a horse who can be mentioned without apology alongside the greats of the 1970's and who is perhaps most akin to Dr. Fager a decade earlier.

Before Monday, Ghostzapper was already admired and accomplished, a Horse of the Year after a brief but brilliant 4-year-old campaign, but his romp in the Met seemed to open a whole new plane of possibilities. To win as demanding a race as the Met off a seven-month absence alone was quite a feat, but the way he did it was more gratifying than anyone could have expected. He probably could have won the way he won the Vosburgh, loping along early and then swooping past everyone at will, but he was in the race every step of the way, less than two lengths off a sizzling opening half-mile of 44.48 and then eight in front in midstretch under a hand ride.

It was yet another dimension for a horse who had already established himself as an electrifying closing sprinter and a determined front-running router. Being extremely fast at your optimal distance is one thing, but being as fast as Ghostzapper is at anywhere from 6 1/2 to 10 furlongs is what really sets him apart. It speaks not only to versatility but also to a rare level of sheer dominance.

Well-meaning racing enthusiasts who view great horses as an opportunity to sell tickets and advertising space already are bemoaning that only 15,066 people witnessed the Met and that 9 out of 10 Americans asked to name a famous horse whose name begins with the letter G would probably say Giacomo rather than Ghostzapper.

First of all, let's not forget that in the Age of Simulcasting, something more like 100,000 racing fans watched the Met, albeit on a television monitor. That's a far bigger Met Mile crowd than there was 30 years ago. Also, just because more people know the names Paris Hilton and Donald Trump than Richard Axel and Linda Buck does not really tarnish the latter pair's 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Ghostzapper may well be a racing aficionado's dream and a publicist's nightmare, but there's something to be said for that. In Frank Stronach and Bobby Frankel, he has an owner and trainer who will never be called cuddly, but isn't it somewhat refreshing to have an equine hero free from a soaring piano soundtrack and sappy accoutrements like cheering nuns, fake underdog folk tales, and guardian angels? There will be no Ghostzapper made-for-TV movies or line of plush toys. He is War Admiral, not Seabiscuit, and he wears a black hat to go with his black silks.

So Frankel sometimes talks like a horseplayer instead of a sycophant, and Stronach is so liable to say or do something so outrageous that his corporate handlers kept him from attending the Preakness at his own track. Aren't you glad that Frankel trains him and that Stronach is too rich and strong-willed to have done the "sensible" thing and retired Ghostzapper after last year's championship season?

Sensitivity gets in way of naming

Garrett Redmond, a horse owner in Lexington, Ky., has filed suit against The Jockey Club for rejecting his proposed name of Sally Hemings for a 2-year-old filly by Colonial Affair out of Jefferson's Secret. The name is a clever historical reference to Thomas Jefferson's purported secret affair in colonial times with a slave named Sally Hemings.

The Jockey Club was trying to be sensitive and politically correct in rejecting the name, understandably so in this touchy era, and has every right to be judgmental in matters of taste, making Redmond's suit a doomed nuisance. Where The Jockey Club overreached was invoking the standard that approval must be obtained to name a horse after a famous person. As Redmond pointed out in a letter, this would not be possible without exhumation or a s?ance, and it is a standard that has not been applied in naming horses after other historical figures, such as Louis Quatorze or Buddha.

It's good that there's a mechanism in place to prevent names such as those of the third-place finisher in the 1911 Preakness, a colt named The Nigger. But there's also such a thing as too much sensitivity. Half a century ago, Jockey Club chairman Alfred Vanderbilt had a colt by Shut Out from Pansy and named him Social Outcast. Would that one get through today?