10/11/2001 11:00PM

They're off! Into wild blue yonder


ARCADIA, Calif. - Give horse racing some credit. In these times of strife and fear, the game is doing its part to entertain and inspire.

Last Monday night, during a "Tonight Show" segment of wacky headlines and goofball news items, Jay Leno displayed what looked like, at first glance, a Del Mar program. That's exactly what it was - all vivid colors, fitting neatly in Leno's hand, and looking pretty good. He quacked something about "you know, the racetrack south of here," then turned to an inside page and displayed it for the camera.

There, beneath a heading of special guests attending that day's races in the grandstand, was the name of a group highlighted in yellow: Acme Glue & Dog Food. The audience laughed. Leno arched an eyebrow and delivered his line.

"Bet the horses didn't need much incentive to run fast that day."

As Ralph Kramden would say, "Har-dy-har-har. . ."

But that's okay. At least the game has a sense of humor. How else could we explain the Fall Highweight Handicap? A Del Mar spokesman confirmed that the program was for real, and that such a bunch (from Santa Monica, no less) attended the races last Aug. 25 and slipped the bogus name past the busy folks in the special groups department. I hope they had a great day at the races.

Then came "Good Morning America" on Wednesday morning, with Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer, and a telephone interview with a U.S. Navy pilot aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson floating somewhere in the Arabian Sea. The pilot, who went by the call sign "Sterno," was describing the first two nights of air raids over Afghanistan, and the mood of his fellow pilots as they prepared for the dangerous sorties.

"Everybody wants to execute," said Sterno. "Everybody wants to look good and do what you are assigned to do: Find your target. Destroy your target."

Sawyer then asked if, in the tradition of American pilots past, any of them had christened their fighters with special names.

"Yes, ma'am, we actually have," Sterno replied. "We have named our airplanes after the Triple Crown winners, symbolizing the strength and that endurance it takes to win the Triple Crowns. Every one of our jets has Triple Crown winners, and I went over the beach the first night with Gallant Fox, from 1930."

"Sterno piloting Gallant Fox," Sawyer sighed. "That sounds like a winner to me."

Sterno and his fellow pilots fly F/A-18 Hornets, described by the Navy Fact File website as a single-seat, all-weather fighter and attack aircraft. It is also the vehicle of choice for the Blue Angels.

The imagination soars. Out there somewhere, perhaps heading deep into Afghanistan as this is being read, is a $29 million airborne attack craft, carrying anything from Sidewinder missiles to laser-guided bombs, with the the name "Seattle Slew" plastered on its nose.

Secretariat had a breathtaking girth of 76 inches an a heart that weighed 17 pounds, nearly twice the size of the average Thoroughbred. The Hornet named Secretariat is 56 feet long and 15 feet, 4 inches tall, with a wingspan of 40 feet, 5 inches, and two F404-GE-402 enhanced-performance turbofan engines that provide 35,400 pounds of thrust.

Count Fleet set a record of 2:28.20 winning the Belmont Stakes by 25 lengths in 1943. Five years later, Citation equaled that time, winning by eight. The F/A-18's bearing the names of Citation and Count Fleet have combat range of 1,089 nautical miles at speeds of more than Mach 1.7, with maximum takeoff weight of 51,900 pounds.

This is fitting. Owners and breeders responded to World War II by naming their horses with military aplomb. It also helped that War Admiral, winner of the 1937 Triple Crown, was on his way to becoming a very lively part of the gene pool. His earliest stakes-winning sons and daughters included Vice Admiral, War Date, War Jeep, and War Watch.

Assault was by Bold Venture (who won the Derby and the Preakness) and foaled in 1943, when the Normandy invasion was still on the drawing board. Three years later, the war safely won, Assault captured the Triple Crown. Now his name is doing business at a ceiling of more than 50,000 feet, alongside Omaha, Sir Barton, and Whirlaway.

Apparently there are plenty of Hornets to do the job. Unfortunately, racing can only contribute 11 triumphant names from the Triple Crown. Strength and endurance - that's what the man said. Makes you wish, though, that there could have been a few more to choose from. Damascus would look pretty nasty on a fighter nose pointed for Kabul. So would Spectacular Bid, or Canonero, or even Silver Charm.

As of last summer, there were Hornets operating in 37 tactical squadrons and 10 aircraft carriers worldwide. One of those carriers is the USS Kitty Hawk, commissioned in 1961.

"My husband had a company years ago that built the Kitty Hawk," said Patrice Wolfson, who breeds and races the horses of Harbor View Farm with her husband, Lou. "We were just talking about that. Now it's on its way again."

And so is an F/A-18 Hornet named for Affirmed, the Wolfsons' pride and joy.