PART OF THE emotional outpouring must surely stem from the national need for a pleasant, even heart-warming diversion from the grim news of the day.
Possibly the connection with horses was inspired by the popularity of the runaway best-seller Seabiscuit: An American Legend and the forthcoming movie biography of the runty, Depression-era equine idol.
Perhaps the upset victory of the similarly unglamorous gelding Funny Cide in this year's Kentucky Derby was the catalyst that combined those two elements and got so many more Americans than usual hooked on this year's Triple Crown drama.
Whatever the alchemy involved, it works, and it can keep working for the benefit of the entire racing industry. Funny Cide's loss to arch rival Empire Maker in the Belmont Stakes last week only adds more spice to a competition that may last through the rest of this year or longer. Trainers for both horses say they want to make the most of this time.
So, here's a suggestion: A match race between Funny Cide and Empire Maker held this fall or next spring at Pimlico Race Course just like the climactic contest in Seabiscuit's 1938 rivalry with Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
Depending how the rest of this year unfolds, such a match could be an old-fashioned, foot-stomping, hootin', hollerin' event with benefits for all involved - and not incidentally a tremendous boon to Maryland racing.
Officials of Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico, would probably have to put a deal together for financing, sponsorship and television rights. Maryland government leaders and horse industry officials might also have to get involved to make the potentially historic match-up a reality. And a million things could go wrong.
But consider the positive omens:
Enthusiasm for last Saturday's race at Belmont was huge. Nearly a record crowd in excess of 100,000 showed up at the rain-soaked New York track, and the biggest television audience for any horse race since 1990 tuned in from elsewhere, according to the Nielsen ratings people.
Funny Cide received bags of fan mail - with admirers ranging from first-graders to 80-year-old ladies who had never written to a horse before - suggesting what can happen when horseracing is able to capture attention beyond its usual base.
The rivalry between Funny Cide and Empire Maker is steadily building. The two horses competed twice before the Belmont, with a win for Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby and a victory for Empire Maker in the Woods Memorial. They are scheduled to meet again Aug. 23 for the Travers at Saratoga, and perhaps on several other occasions through the end of 2003. The two will be dueling for the prestigious title of Horse of the Year, decided by votes from industry groups.
The two horses are perfect foils for each other: Empire Maker is handsome, classically bred for distance and owned by a Saudi prince; Funny Cide is plain, of lesser pedigree and a sprinter, owned by 10 average Joes on a lark.
There is such a striking parallel between the 2003 competitors and the 1930s rivalry between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, recounted by author Laura Hillenbrand, that the Triple Crown battle looks like a Hollywood promo for the movie Seabiscuit, which opens July 25. The movie, in turn, will likely fuel interest in the modern-day horses.
So, once again Pimlico could play host to the dramatic conclusion of a neck-and-neck contest between two equine champions to give the country - and the sport - a boost.
And they're off!