02/03/2006 1:00AM

Seahawks give Seattle another Slew


ARCADIA, Calif. - Those of us who hail from an obscure backwater village where professional football is merely a distant rumor - like Los Angeles - cannot begin to appreciate the delirium spinning heads in the Pacific Northwest, home of the Super Bowl underdogs.

Even Seattle's diehard Seahawks fans find it hard to believe that their team and town perch on the brink of winning America's most famous trophy, or any trophy, for that matter. While admired for its coffee and its grand maritime scenery, Seattle has never been confused with Chicago or Baltimore as a pro sports mecca.

In fact, for the longest time the most popular sports franchise in the Seattle area was Longacres Racetrack, which opened in the suburb of Renton in August of 1933. Longacres's only real competition came from the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, a Triple A ballclub that played in a downtown park called Sick's Stadium.

Seattle got its first big-time professional team in 1967 when the NBA's SuperSonics set up shop. Two years later, major league baseball came to town, but blink and you missed it. The Seattle Pilots lasted exactly one year, drawing fewer than 700,000 people and finishing 33 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the first year of American League divisional play. The following year, the franchise was sold to Milwaukee and became the Brewers, as in beer, not coffee.

The golden years of Seattle sports kicked off in 1976 when the Seahawks were born. Not even a 2-12 rookie record dampened the local enthusiasm for their emergence as an NFL city.

In 1977 major league baseball returned, this time to stay, in the form of the Seattle Mariners. That same year, Seattle became a household word in the sporting world, but the home teams had nothing to do with it. Blame Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew for putting the town in lights.

Seattle Slew was also 1977 Horse of the Year, which is certainly a national championship, of sorts. In terms of local teams, however, it was the 1979 SuperSonics who brought Seattle its first - and only - professional title as NBA champs. Since then, Seattle has had the same number of professional sporting championships as Boise, Abilene, or Stockton - zip.

Emerald Downs is now the Thoroughbred capital of Washington, and its marketing strategy always manages to embrace the local sports teams, including the Seahawks, even though there is not much overlap between the racing season and NFL league play.

Each spring, however, Emerald Downs plays host to Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren and his coaching staff for a special day at the races.

"He plans it right before he takes the team into training for the upcoming season," said Susie Sourwine, Emerald Downs vice president of marketing.

"Coach Holmgren is a pretty detailed oriented guy," Sourwine noted. "The first year we had their party, he came out beforehand to do a walk-through, from the place where the bus would stop to the suite where they would spend the day.

"They have a lot of fun, they help the handle, and every year horse ownership comes up at some point," she went on. "Coach Holmgren says he'd have to wait until he's through with football, though.

"They've always been a confident bunch," Sourwine added. "But when they were here last May they did not mention anything about seeing us in the Super Bowl. If they win, I can't wait for them to come back this spring."

It has never been a surprise for the local Seattle sports personalities to find their way to Emerald Downs, or before that Longacres. Fred Hutchinson, a Rainiers star and later a major leaguer who ended up managing the Cincinnati Reds, was a racetrack regular, as was Seahawks stalwart Mike Tice, who ended up in the NFL coaching ranks.

Tice is pals with Mike Puhich, Southern California trainer and Seattle refugee, who was visiting his stakes-winning 4-year-old Southern Africa at an L.A.-area farm Friday morning, making sure the colt was progressing toward his comeback after undergoing knee surgery last year. Once satisfied with the looks of Southern Africa, the trainer's thoughts returned to Detroit, the site of the Super Bowl.

"Ah, man, I had a free ticket and everything, but I just couldn't go," Puhich said. "Airfare and everything. All my friends are back there. I'm just sick. The whole town has gone nuts."

Puhich was at least able to make it back home for the NFC championship game two weeks ago. The celebration was a preview of what might come if the Seahawks come through Sunday.

"I went to their games in the Kingdome for years, and I thought that was the loudest place I'd ever be," Puhich said. "They play outdoors now, and the place was twice as loud as any Kingdome game. After the NFC championship game, nobody wanted to leave the stadium. Everybody was hugging and crying. The players were running the trophy around the field.

"To tell you the truth, if I had a horse in the Kentucky Derby, I don't think I'd be more nervous than I'll be on Sunday," Puhich added. "I thought about going to Seattle to watch the game. But I think I'll just watch it alone. Prediction? We'll either blow them out or win it on the last play."