06/04/2002 11:00PM

Security tight for Belmont and the Prince


NEW YORK - Barry Schwartz, the chairman of the New York Racing Association knows that some New Yorkers have voiced objections to the presence of Ahmed bin Salman, a Saudi Arabian prince, at Belmont Park on Saturday to watch his horse, War Emblem, try to win the Triple Crown.

"Yes, some people are rooting against War Emblem," Schwartz said on Tuesday. "I think it's silly. But you hear it."

Sept. 11 still resonates powerfully in New York, and Salman's ties to a country that produced Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers makes him guilty by association to some. As a result, security at this year's Belmont has taken on a new sense of urgency, especially where Salman is concerned.

The warnings about Salman's possible reception have in some cases been explicit. In a column following War Emblem's Derby win, Jimmy Breslin, the New York Newsday columnist, went so far as to tell Salman to stay away from New York.

"It is understood that these Saudis don't have the class of a goat," Breslin wrote. "If this bin Salman had any, he would stay away and not run his horse out of respect. . . . A planned assembly of firefighters at Belmont Park might send the prince away, and with the horse he rode in on."

Despite those sentiments, Salman is coming, NYRA officials said this week, and he has declined to sit in a special section of the clubhouse that would offer privacy to him and his 25-person entourage, which includes several personal bodyguards. NYRA officials declined to identify where Salman plans to spend Belmont Day, for security reasons.

NYRA chief of security John Tierney said on Monday that the track has not received any threats, specific or general, against Salman or his horse. He said the NYRA security staff, the Nassau County police special investigative services unit, and Salman's personal security detail would work out a precise protection plan for Salman on Thursday.

"The security detail will not be any greater than we would provide any other dignitary, but it is a situation where we want to be certain that we have done everything possible to make sure he is safe, and do that in a way in which the prince feels comfortable," Tierney said.

NYRA will have 400 people on staff for security purposes on Saturday, when a crowd of 80,000 is expected, Tierney said. The personnel will include rooftop snipers and undercover officers working the crowd. Normal security staff on a weekend race day is "maybe 60," Tierney said.

Schwartz said that security will be especially tight near the paddock, where War Emblem and his handlers and owners could be in danger from the crowd.

"You always have the drunk louts, and that's what we are concerned about," Schwartz said. "They will not be allowed near the horse. They will be thrown out. I can assure you that. The paddock will be very tightly protected."

Tierney said security procedures in place on Belmont Stakes day will be "as intense and as high-profile" as security on Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships day at Belmont, held six weeks after the attacks on Oct. 26. Every bag, backpack, and purse will be searched, and every person through the gates will be passed over with metal-detecting wands.

Coolers will be banned everywhere except the backyard, and cooking equipment will be prohibited in all parts of the track. People with coolers can only enter at two places: the west side admission gate, where the Long Island Rail Road stops, and the paddock admission gate. All coolers and containers will be searched.

At last year's Breeders' Cup, Arab owners, including the Maktoum family of Dubai, which won two Breeders' Cup races, declined to attend, citing domestic security matters. The Maktoums' Godolphin Racing donated all purse winnings on Breeders' Cup day to Sept. 11-related charities.

Schwartz said intelligent New Yorkers are dismissing the anti-Arab rhetoric, and anticipated a warm reception for Salman.

The Breslin column "was ridiculous," Schwartz said. "That's like saying there's 40 million people in Saudi Arabia and that we should kill them all. That's insane. I don't think New Yorkers are going to react that way."

"We've never had a problem with Arab owners in the past, and I don't expect a problem this year either," Tierney said.