09/09/2005 12:00AM

The need for aid hits home

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The response of the Thoroughbred racing industry to the Gulf Coast disaster of 8/29 has been every bit as generous and ongoing as it was to the attacks of 9/11 upon New York and Washington, D.C.

Beginning on that awful Monday morning of Aug. 29, when dawn's light revealed the rush of water from Lake Pontchartrain breaching the levees of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the first reaction of many racing groups and countless individuals has been to raise money and send help.

In that sense, horse racing is in lockstep with other major sports organizations. The New York Yankees put up $1 million for hurricane relief, as did Robert McNair (Stonerside Farm) on behalf of his Houston Texans of the NFL. The United States Tennis Association donated $500,000, plus another $50,000 raised by a group of New Jersey schoolchildren who solicited donations during the U.S. Open.

The NFL is planning a fund-raising telethon, and the NBA Players Association is soliciting each of its members for contributions, while such well-known individuals as Shaquille O'Neal, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Vijay Singh, and Vladimir Guerrero are just a few of the marquee names who have made personal pledges of aid.

Horse racing has answered the challenge in a number of ways, led by the $1 million pledge from Bill and Susan Casner of WinStar Farm to match donations collected during the Keeneland yearling sales that begin in Lexington on Monday, Sept. 12.

Management and horsemen at Evangeline Downs, the Louisiana track invigorated by slot machines, raised more than $75,000 through a day's handle dedicated to victims of the flood.

Churchill Downs Inc., owners of the damaged, partially flooded Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, set up a relief fund that quickly grew to nearly $70,000 through donations from company employees.

The National Horsemen's Benev-olent and Protective Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and Thoroughbred Racing Charities came up with $60,000 in short-term funding to aid displaced Louisiana horsemen.

Canadian rescue teams were among the first on the scene in New Orleans, and Woodbine Entertainment Group followed their cue by matching fan donations raised at Woodbine racetrack last weekend.

Del Mar's jockey colony and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club jump-started an array of fund-raisers that netted $100,000 during the closing week of its meet.

Louisiana native Mark Guidry spearheaded fund-raising efforts among fellow jockeys, fans, and horsemen at Arlington Park that so far have gathered more than $34,000, with a chance to add to that total through jockey autograph sessions on the two final weekends of the meet.

Magna Entertainment Corp. is providing its Palm Meadows training center facilities in Florida as living quarters for up to 300 hurricane evacuees, and announced plans to build a housing development for them near Baton Rouge, La., as part of a $3 million commitment from Magna's chairman, Frank Stronach.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has designated Saturday, Oct. 8 as Racing to the Rescue Day across America, with the telecast of the Breeders' Cup preview races from Belmont Park as the focal point for hurricane relief fund-raising. Owners, trainers, and jockeys will be encouraged to designate a portion of their earnings from that day's competition toward relief efforts.

Thad Ackel is taking that idea a step further. The New Orleans native is challenging fellow Thoroughbred owners across the nation to designate a specific horse to compete in the name of hurricane relief in a specific race. To that end, Ackel has committed his "best horse," the 4-year-old colt Artemis Sunrise, to run for the relief fund in the $100,000 Turfway Park Fall Championship on Oct. 1. Ackel pledges to donate every nickel he earns, and it could be a lot, since Artemis Sunrise is a quick son of Tale of the Cat who has placed in stakes at Ellis Park and Mountaineer in his two most recent outings.

Ackel, who also has a residence in Shreveport and horses in training at Louisiana Downs and Churchill Downs, returned to his condo in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie earlier this week to salvage a few personal items.

"I ended up in there after curfew, and it was eerie," Ackel said. "No streetlights, rubbish everywhere, the smell of sewage in the air. There were still people holding out, right there in my complex, standing outside, drinking beer and cracking jokes. Only in New Orleans.

"It's such a vibrant community, and still I couldn't wait to get out of there," Ackel went on. "I couldn't help but think they're better than I am. One of the guys asked me if I had any plastic silverware. I just wanted to cry."

Ackel shares the same emotions as so many others who were touched, but not buried, by the hurricane.

"I would think it shouldn't be that difficult to set up with a local paymaster, to have a purse checked off to be donated," Ackel said. "I just feel so blessed. We weren't hit nearly as hard as so many other people in town. I've got to do something, and I figured this was a good way to maybe get other horse owners involved in the effort."