Compared with the rest of the insular world of American sports, horse racing is a bastion of internationalism. But its tolerance may be tested at tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.
If his horse wins, a Saudi prince will capture not only one of the most elusive prizes in sports, but an American cultural symbol: the Triple Crown. And he will do it at the racetrack at Elmont, N.Y., which is 15 miles away from the World Trade Center site and was used as a staging area for rescue efforts Sept. 11.
Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a member of the royal family that rules Saudi Arabia, is chairman of one of his nation's largest media companies, whose newspapers have angered some Saudis by denouncing Islamic militancy and Osama bin Laden.
But the racing world, and New York security officials, are braced for an adverse reaction if the prince's black colt, War Emblem, wins the Belmont. The horse won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, in commanding form.
Some people don't like the idea that the prince is from the same country as most of those who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, even though Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the United States. Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin suggested, in rude terms, that the prince and his horse should stay away from the race "out of respect."
Salman has declined, through spokesmen, all prerace interviews, including one with this newspaper. After the Derby and Preakness, he demurred when questions were raised about his nation's delicate relationship with the United States: "I'm a businessman. I leave that up to our politicians and American politicians."
But he hasn't hidden his origins, either. He dresses his jockeys in silks of green and white - the colors of the Saudi flag. And as he hoisted the Woodlawn vase after the Preakness, he declared to the assembled fans and television audience: "This is to my friends in America and to the people of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
Although he is not in the line of succession for the Saudi throne, Salman, 43, is one of several thousand princes and a member of an influential wing of the royal family. One of his uncles is King Fahd, and one of his brothers is deputy oil minister.
Salman's father, governor of the capital, Riyadh, is fourth or fifth in line to the throne, said Youssef Ibrahim, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former Mideast correspondent for The New York Times.
"His father is an extremely important personality and also one of the most enlightened," Ibrahim said.
The media company Salman operates publishes a number of important newspapers, including Asharq Al-Awsat, which raised eyebrows in Riyadh when it began running columns by the Times' Thomas Friedman. In a break with Arab media orthodoxy, it uses the term "suicide attackers" rather than "martyrs" when referring to bombings in Israel in news reports.
Though hardly independent of the Saudi government, the paper is published in London and circulated widely in Saudi Arabia, an arrangement that frees it of the most severe censorship.
Altogether, the prince's company, Saudi Research & Marketing Group, publishes 18 daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines, and it operates an advertising and public relations firm. He is a wealthy man, though his net worth has not been reported.
Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Center, said Salman's papers are among the most liberal in the Arab media but are not free of offensive content. The Salman-published English-language Arab News, for example, recently carried a dispatch by former Ku Klux Klansman and American white-power advocate David Duke that claimed Israel "aided and abetted" the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There's a mixture. They have some good guys in them, and they have some not-so-good guys. You get the crazy articles in there - very anti-American and anti-Semitic," said Stalinsky, whose group has been criticized by the Arab News for its Israeli connections.
Though Salman became the first Arab horse owner to win the Kentucky Derby last month, he has been active in American racing for many years. The syndicate he heads, Thoroughbred Corp., saddled Point Given, which went off as a favorite in last year's Derby but finished fifth. It won the Preakness and Belmont.
Salman has a major stable based in Bradbury, Calif., and about 60 horses in training in the United States. The Thoroughbred Corp.'s $8 million in race earnings last year ranked it second among North American horse owners.
Salman was buying horses at an auction in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 11. when planes hijacked by 19 men - 15 of them Saudi citizens - slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia and a field in Pennsylvania.
Salman was quoted in the next day's Lexington Herald-Leader saying: "It's just a catastrophe. It's like it happened to Arabia. This is my second home. What happens to America happens to Arabia."