05/22/2008 12:00AM

Two events fit holiday bill


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Keith Olbermann, on MSNBC's "Countdown," delighted in the Preakness infield custom of brave young lads racing across the top of a row of porta-potties while being pelted by beer cans.

Sam Shepard, who played Frank Whiteley in the Ruffian biopic, has a new play called "Kicking a Dead Horse" hitting off-Broadway in June.

The Onion, a satirical newspaper and website, broke the story that Nike had signed the Derby and Preakness winner to a $90 million deal to endorse a new Air Brown line of horseshoes.

Who says horse racing isn't mainstream?

Triple Crown speculation is monopolizing the racing news and spilling over into the rest of the media world. Big Brown's exploits offer the ultimate escape from the anxieties of $4-a-gallon gas and the head-throbbing rhetoric of the presidential campaigns. Racing at large is also doing its part - Daily Racing Form lists entries for more than 50 North American racetracks over the Memorial Day weekend, including the final weekend of sport at the Brown County Fairgrounds in South Dakota. Too much racing? Nah, sounds just about right.

There is no way to play favorites, other than to point out the obvious main attractions at places like Hollywood Park, Arlington Park, and Lone Star. Memorial Day at Belmont Park is always a good day because of the Met Mile, but if the New York Racing Association were smart it would sell tickets to watch Big Brown eat at Barn 2 on the backstretch.

No one will be driving very far, though, unless compelled by habit, which means that there will be a premium on local pleasures. In the spirit of niche marketing, here are a couple of events that deserve attention.

Equine art is a slippery beast. Nearly everyone thinks they can draw a horse of some sort, and a huge cottage industry has bloomed among artists who fancy themselves as the next Alfred Munnings, John Skeaping, or Richard Stone Reeves.

Erica Nordean didn't even bother to try. A native of the Northwest and an accomplished rider, Nordean used that inspiration to tap directly into her inner rustic. As a result, working primarily in acrylics, she has developed a bold, sweeping interpretation of the Thoroughbred, both at rest and in action, that tiptoes right up to the edge of abstract. You can make a case for such influences as Degas, Franz Marc, and even Francis Bacon at his quieter moments, especially in such works as Nordean's evocative pieces "Right as Rain" and "Ice Cave."

It must be the 21st century, because Nordean's work wouldn't have gotten a sniff 25 years ago. To the credit of collectors, she has broken through layers of familiar tradition to be accepted at the highest levels.

How high? Try the 2007 official Kentucky Oaks poster for Churchill Downs, among other corporate patronage. No one can begrudge Nordean any amount of success with large commissions and mass production. Still, it was nice to see some of her most intimate pieces on display at the South Hill Gallery on Broadway in Lexington, Ky., where they will show through June.

On Saturday, in the Northern California town of Willits, the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation is presenting special tours and programs at the Ridgewood Ranch property of Charles S. Howard to mark the 75th birthday of the legendary Seabiscuit, who is buried there.

The fundraising portion of the event is co-sponsored by the Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital, which was built 80 years ago by Charles Howard in response to the death of his son in an automobile accident. Two specially commissioned statues of Seabiscuit and his jockeys, Red Pollard and George Woolf, will be auctioned. Members of Howard family, including Col. Michael Howard and his mother, Barbara Howard, will be joined by representatives of the Pollard family, as well as the family of Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith.

Among the many Seabiscuit artifacts on display will be several living representatives of his lineage, including Isabel's Pearl, a former racehorse who was rescued earlier this year from likely slaughter. Tracy Livingston, director of the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation, apologized that Isabel's Pearl won't be at her best, since she recently suffered a gash in a collision with some fencing.

"You can have the safest environment and a horse can get hurt," Livingston said. "Then you can have them in an environment that isn't the greatest, and they can get away with murder. But my daughter's taking good care of her.

"One of the reasons we got Isabel is because of my wife, who had been very sick," Livingston went on. "Growing up, she was one of those horse-crazy girls. When she was 11, her father built her a sailboat, and she named it Seabiscuit. Then we ended up here, living right across the way from Seabiscuit's stall. She was in this community for 32 years."

Kathryn Livingston passed away just last Monday, at the age of 63, after a six-year battle with cancer. The Livingstons were married 45 years. A private memorial is planned, but in the meantime she will be very much on everyone's mind at Seabiscuit's birthday party on Saturday, which is the way it ought to be.