09/04/2002 12:00AM

The show will respectfully go on


DEL MAR, Calif. - The dog days of Del Mar have arrived. Summer is over. The tourists are gone. All that is left behind are a cluster of smoldering fire pits, used bottles of sunscreen strewn along the shore, and these last few afternoons of racing, played out before the local residents and the scavenging gulls. Even the fog has started to roll in.

Del Mar management has done its best to goose up the remaining post Labor Day programs. For starters, on Friday college students will be admitted free, which virtually assures an increase in the intellectual level of grandstand discourse ("Hey, they sell cigars here, man"), as well as a sharp decrease in per capita betting.

On Sunday there are mules. (More about them another day.)

On Saturday, there will be $300,000 at stake in the Del Mar Derby, then another $250,000 next Wednesday in the Del Mar Futurity. The Futurity was first run in 1948 and the Derby dates back to 1945, yet it remains a mystery why no horse has ever won them both. Let's not be too demanding, though. Perhaps it is enough to hope that the Futurity winner at least does something noteworthy at age 3. Of the last 10, there has been only one who did - Silver Charm.

The 2002 Del Mar meet has been a hit, at least in terms of both live attendance and total handle. Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but any seven-week span during which fans have a chance to watch Azeri, War Emblem, Came Home, Golden Apples, Affluent, Dublino, Megahertz, Sarafan, and Beat Hollow emerges with a glow worth remembering.

Still, there was one nagging element hanging over the 2002 Del Mar meet that was inescapable from the start. It was always going to end on Sept. 11.

The dates for the 2002 meet were set well before Sept. 11, 2001, as adopted by the California Horse Racing Board. In fact, Del Mar management had to fight for their traditional 43rd day - Sept. 11 in this case - which always takes place on a Wednesday. It was the CHRB's proposal last year to reduce the 2002 Del Mar season by one day to allow for a little more time between meets. The idea was abandoned.

"So we got the day back," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president. "And now that date has come to mean so much more."

There will always be some sentiment that fun and games should take a holiday when faced with somber moments of national remembrance. In the wake of the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11 last year, nearly every racetrack in the country suspended business for at least a day in deference to the victims and their families. Now, a year later, the world of sports is faced with choosing the right way to mark the first anniversary. Del Mar officials even broached the idea of going dark on Sept. 11.

"We talked about not racing," Harper said. "I just felt so strongly that we should continue, and do the appropriate thing: Recognize the day for what it was and go on with our lives. I was raised in a family where the show went on, no matter what."

Harper's grandfather, Cecil B. DeMille, was a powerful Hollywood producer and director who lorded over such huge productions as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Show on Earth." His grandson, a Del Mar executive for 25 years, will be content to get through Wednesday evening's traditional postseason Party in the Paddock without a hitch.

"The party will go on," Harper said. "Although now it will be not only for the benefit of Children's Hospital, but also for the Firefighter's Fund. The firefighters of San Diego County are chipping in to sell tickets. And to start the day, a group of firefighters will be singing the national anthem."

There will be more. Color guards will be on hand from veteran's groups, fire department, and the Navy. An American flag, 100 yards long and 50 yards high, will be unfurled on the track. An elite team of Navy Seals will parachute in. There will be a helicopter fly-by. Doves will be released. A choir will sing. There will also be racing, including the Futurity.

"I think people will want to get out of the house," Harper added. "I think we will be a place that can recognize what happened, and the sacrifices of that day."

* Some friendships last longer than others. Some last forever. Erin Smith opened her home to a young college grad, wringing wet behind the ears, when he started his career in horse racing a whole lot of years ago. As the wife of Del Mar director of media Dan Smith, she knows enough about the game to tell a lifetime of tales. Right now she is in Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, recovering from the removal of part of a lung, so hold a good thought.

We want to hear those tales.