09/27/2001 11:00PM

Time's right to get back in saddle


NEW YORK - It is suddenly just 27 days until the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be held at Belmont Park, 23 miles east of the attacks on the World Trade Center 19 days ago.

More than 200 people have reportedly canceled their plans and returned their Breeders' Cup tickets. Like intimidated apprentice jockeys riding Belmont's sweeping turns for the first time, they have made their move too soon and underestimated the value of staying power. The races will and should go on, and no one who was planning to participate should be giving it a second thought.

Here at Daily Racing Form's corporate headquarters just four blocks from the attacks, the streets are full and bustling and the stock exchanges are back in business. From a few stories up, you can see the area already being patched and rebuilt in every direction, from the spires of Trinity Church to the steps of Federal Hall.

While there are far fewer visitors than normal in the city, the residents are resuming their rituals. The hotels are half-empty but the bars are full. Every day, more and more people are learning and proving that it is as safe and natural as ever to congregate in stadiums and theaters. The Yankees will be playing postseason games, and the Mets are trying to pull off a Silky Sullivan and join them.

Sunday will be only the ninth day of racing at Belmont since the attacks, and it seems that more people every day are rejoining the game in spirit. The refrain you hear over and over from local horseplayers is that they just didn't feel like getting involved for a while, but now it seems like time to start playing again. The mood at the track remains a bit subdued, but it's that way everywhere.

If you haven't been back yet, there's no better time than this coming weekend at Belmont. In what is becoming a sort of national Breeders' Cup Prep day, there will be more than a dozen key graded races around the country, including Belmont's Preview Day card featuring the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday. This is a weekend for simulcast-surfing and serious trip-watching, with major preps at Santa Anita and Keeneland as well.

Some people are uncomfortable at the prospect of getting on an airplane to New York later this month, and no amount of citing safety statistics will change their minds. You can't argue people out of their fears. Unfortunately, these fears are being stoked rather than soothed these days by many of the sources that should be providing dispassionate information.

Almost every night on television, you can find a so-called "news magazine" putting frightening scenarios into the public mind. This is the same appalling, ratings-driven perversion of journalism that for years has produced routine local-news teasers like "Are your children being poisoned at school? Exclusive details at 11!" Sensible people have learned to regard these scare tactics as no more substantial than the promises of psychics, but in the current climate one would hope that a higher standard would be set.

Last week on CBS, some talking haircut took former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on a walking tour of Manhattan, pointing at virtually every skyscraper or subway station and triumphantly suggesting it was a potential disaster site that people should avoid. Finally, an exasperated Bratton justifiably opined that the logical conclusion to this line of thinking would be for every citizen to spend the rest of his life hiding under his bed.

In the racing world, a similarly hysterical premise, repeated on Internet message boards and in some letters this office has received, is that the Breeders' Cup participation of Sheik Mohammed of Dubai and Prince Ahmed of Saudi Arabia is somehow inappropriate or compromises the security of the event. In fact, their presence should be seen as a sign of strength and support. Their respective governments have renounced their previous recognition of the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, and both men have condemned the attacks and made extraordinarily generous personal donations to the relief efforts here.

They deserve to be welcomed warmly by a record crowd Oct. 27 as friends not only of racing but also of New York City and the United States.