10/31/2007 12:00AM

Sprint hero a hoops dream

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Mike Pegram said that if Midnight Lute managed to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint, he promised to share the story behind the story of the naming of the horse. Mission accomplished, big time, so here goes:

Midnight Lute is a cool handle, generously loaned by Lute Olson, who for the last 25 years has been the head coach of the University of Arizona men's basketball team - the same men's team that has made the NCAA playoffs for 23 straight years and the Final Four four times during Olson's tenure. The U of A men were NCAA champions in 1997.

As told by one of Pegram's partners, Paul Weitman, during last Saturday's postrace interviews at Monmouth Park (Carl Watson is the other owner), Weitman's pal Lute got the nickname "Midnight" from Jerry Tarkanian, another head-coaching legend. Tarkanian acknowledged Olson as a recruiting master who could sweep in at the 11th hour to snap up a prime high school basketball prospect, after all other pitches had been made.

Pegram agreed that Midnight Lute was a great name for a racehorse, and he had the exact horse in mind in the spring of 2005 after a son of Real Quiet became available privately after failing to sell at a 2-year-old auction. Pegram got the deal rolling, and on March 27 he gave Weitman a call to get him involved.

"Unfortunately, the night before U of A had collapsed in that regional final in Chicago," Pegram said, referring to the 2005 version of March Madness. "Paul lives and dies by Wildcats basketball. After Illinois outscored U of A by 15 with less than four minutes to play, then beat them in overtime, he was just sick. He said he didn't feel like buying a racehorse."

From such moments are born great decisions.

"I told him that he might want to get over it quick, because he would want a piece of this horse," Pegram said. "If he didn't, I was gonna buy him anyway and name him Chicago Meltdown, just so he'd be reminded every time he ran."

Weitman was in, and the rest is becoming very entertaining history, especially if Midnight Lute can keep rolling.

Children are the future

Those of us who consumed the Breeders' Cup Saturday program on television (sorry Mr. Nielsen, I was at a racetrack) got six hours of ESPN coverage, led by a small army of guys in drip-dry suits (Randy Moss, Jerry Bailey, Joe Tessitore, Kenny Mayne, Hank Goldberg, and a collection of handicapping guests), plus two women - Jeannine Edwards and Caton Bredar - who braved the elements at ringside and on horseback, respectively. Talk about equal pay for equal work.

For viewers whose taste leans toward old footage of Harvard-Princeton games played in the mud and without helmets, or trench warfare during World War I, the eight races were a beautiful sight. For the rest of us, there were at least a handful of entertaining, pre-packaged features, led by Mayne's subversive fairy tale about young fans and their cultivation by the New York OTB.

Mayne's questionable use of children in otherwise hilarious ESPN features is well documented. There was the time he enlisted a West Side class of pre-schoolers to serve as "pieces" in a segment on speed chess in New York's Washington Square Park. And who can forget the backlash from Mayne's kid-stacking competition between two teams of NBA all-stars, even though it was league-sanctioned.

Okay, just kidding. But this time, in the Breeders' Cup segment, children were exposed to any number of concerns far more suited to adults. At a mocked-up OTB day-care facility, Mayne's tykes cracked Daily Racing Form for Kids and learned that the number in bold face type "indicates how fast the horsey really ran" and was named "for a senior citizen named Andrew Beyer."

Making children sound like miniature grown-ups has worked in the past - from Shirley Temple to "Taxi Driver" - so Mayne has his little scamps say things such as, "I hope she wraps this up. I need to get down in the pick four at Santa Anita," and, "What's first post at Sha Tin?" For a class field trip, they went hand in hand to the nearest ATM, where a wise young lass whispered, "They call this the walk of shame."

The piece worked, and it should give racetracks any number of ideas for a true youth movement. The snag, of course, is that sporting events are supposed to provide escape from the mortal concerns of life and death, especially for children. Nobody bought the farm at the Super Bowl, and there were no fatalities at the World Series, even though the Rockies showed very little pulse.

So when something like the death of the colt George Washington happens, after his breakdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic, how does Mayne explain to his two young daughters that horse racing, mostly fun and games, also can result in dead horses?

"I try to assure them," Mayne said, "and I hope I'm right, that 99 percent of the trainers and owners really do care about these horses, and I hope are not putting their horses in situations where it could happen. If that's not true, then I'm turning them on to something that's not very good, if I'm telling them horse racing is cool."