10/18/2001 11:00PM

Time for celebration and reflection


ARCADIA, Calif. - Time to pack for the Breeders' Cup. The Weather Channel tells me to prepare for mild, partly cloudy days and seasonal, sometimes chilly nights.

Where I live, chilly means socks with sandals and longsleeves at sunset. For chilly in New York, I must find something thermal, or stop taking blood thinner.

The Breeders' Cup has gone to New York only three times in the 17 years before this one. The other 14 seem like they've all been held in Louisville, but that could be the hot browns talking. I do recall seeing an alligator once at a Breeders' Cup party, which would indicate either a site in south Florida, or the psychological effects of an afternoon spent at JFK baggage claim.

Back in 1985, New York racing was ambivalent about the Breeders' Cup, as if they thought there was no way it would stick around. How do I know? They put us at Aqueduct, like guests who didn't quite deserve the good china. Only the presence of Pebbles and Cozzene made the experience forgivable.

When the Breeders' Cup returned in 1990, Belmont Park was available, and it was a reassuring sight. Bathed in bright sun, it was chilly, sure, but there was no finer place to be. Too bad the day turned into dark theater, with a leaping, losing Dayjur in the Sprint and the unforgiving memory of three fallen horses.

Belmont got another chance in 1995, and it rained, but not bad enough to bother Cigar. And while he was the star of the show, wrapping up a 10-for-10 campaign, the real heroes were the survivors of the two grass races. Better they should have been run on molasses. The Mile was won by Ridgewood Pearl in 1:43.60. In the Turf, at 1 1/2 miles, Northern Spur outstaggered Freedom Cry in 2:42. The concession lines moved faster.

Now we are back, braced for a subdued Breeders' Cup taking place in the shadow of our recent terrorist trauma. If nothing else, holding onto the Breeders' Cup this year at Belmont Park sends a signal of continuity to the sporting world at large. Racing tends to trail along on the scraps of national attention. Hopefully - television willing - there will be a reason to look up next Saturday and watch a house full of 50,000 fans cheering wildly for a hundred grand animals. They will witness a game that is a pertinent just as much as anything played with a stick, a ball, or a puck.

The week is also special because of what will happen on Wednesday night. The National Turf Writers' Association, at its annual awards dinner, will be honoring three people who have made horse racing a better place to work and to play. Like the game itself, they are in for the long haul.

It feels like Shirley Day Smith has held more hands and smoothed more feathers and made life easier for more people than FEMA. There is no emergency she can't manage. In her tenure riding point for the New York Racing Association press office, she went above and beyond the call of duty so often that no one could recall her original job description.

Gary West brings a scholarly, measured approach to the coverage of Thoroughbred racing, which he does with all the relish of a man sitting down to enjoy a big, slow meal. When he writes, the reader learns, which is rare enough in these days of sexy hooks and sound bites. He also wears a jacket, tie, and cowboy boots to the barns for his interviews, but don't hold that against him.

Allen Jerkens will stand before the banquet guests on Wednesday night as the recipient of the Mr. Fitz Award, which honors a person who exemplifies the spirit of horse racing.

If this sounds vague, then blame the writers. "Spirit" is a word that defies precise definition, although most people get the general idea. Jerkens, on the other hand, is bona fide piece of the rock, and has been ever since he emerged with his first winner 51 years ago. If anyone wants a flesh and blood display of the spirit of horse racing, they need only spend a day in his presence. Wednesday evening will be good for starters.

The rest of the Breeders' Cup celebration will be dedicated to the memory of the fallen at the World Trade Center, and their families, and the firemen and policemen who died trying to save lives that day.

Hopefully, there is room for one more hero. Eleven years ago, on Oct. 27, 1990, a colt named Unbridled tried his best to rescue a grim afternoon. The audience was still in shock, trying to deal with the breakdowns of Mr. Nickerson, Shaker Knit, and Go for Wand, when Unbridled dove headlong between horses deep in the stretch to win the Breeders' Cup Classic by a length.

Unbridled was passing on his gift to horses like Unbridled's Song, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park in 1995, and Exogenous, who starts in this year's Distaff. Now, at the age of only 14, he is gone, a victim of colic on Thursday night. He was a magnetic creature, born to lead, and a Kentucky Derby winner who drove his trainer, Carl Nafzger, to soaring emotional heights:

"You've won the Derby! You've won the Derby! Mrs. Genter, I love you."

The moment is impossible to forget, and so is the horse.