10/09/2003 12:00AM

And the horse didn't even talk


ARCADIA, Calif. - There is a Wednesday night show on NBC called "Ed" that is billed as a romantic comedy stocked with "odd but appealing" characters. This would be "odd but appealing" as in "annoying but unarmed."

According to reports, "Ed" has been running for three years. Three years is about the statute of limitations on any TV show buried as deep in the Nielsens as "Ed" is (61st last week out of 114 rated programs). But three years gave "Ed" time enough to finally get around to a story line this week about horse racing.

Now, this is not to say that "Ed" undid in one commercially interrupted hour all the positive vibes delivered by "Seabiscuit," a movie that may have even tempted moviegoers to explore the modern version of the long-ago world portrayed in the well-mounted film.

However, anyone who got their most recent dose of horse racing from "Ed" woke up Thursday morning disoriented and deeply conflicted. It was comedy, right? It was supposed to make us laugh, sort of.

Granted, the opening was cute, with the title character (a small-town lawyer who owns a bowling alley) reminding his pal (a doctor of no apparent specialty) of their childhood dream to own a racehorse.

"You know . . . the dream we've shared since that crisp autumn day when our fathers first took us to the Jaspar Park racetrack to see our first horse race?" He then launched into a tune from "Guys and Dolls."

And I really can't argue with the auction scene, in which Ed and his pal let their testosterone take over when the bidding got hot, and personal. "I'm not going to let the man in corduroy take our horse," said Ed, upping the bid to $13,000. Ever been to Keeneland?

There was the inevitable "what's a hock?" crack delivered while looking at a filly's head. And viewers were treated to two - yes, two - horse potty scenes, one of them accompanied by the trusty old line, "I think we're gonna need a bigger bag."

It is difficult to maintain any degree of sanity these days, unless belief is totally suspended every time the television is turned on. This includes most news and all political press conferences. In essence, this particular version of "Ed" was nothing but a twisted racetrack cartoon, rife with cliches played tongue-in-cheek. It definitely was not for the squeamishly picky racing fan who has a low tolerance level for any of the following:

* A racehorse being stabled in a garage.

* A racehorse being stabled in a bowling alley.

* A cattle call for jockeys being interviewed by Ed and his pal.

* A glowering, monosyllabic trainer wearing bib overalls, handing over a folder full of bills.

It did make this viewer long for that grand episode of "Taxi" when crazy Jim claimed a racehorse at Belmont and brought it back to his apartment.

Monmouth Park (standing in for the mythical Jaspar) was beautifully photographed, and only the hardest of hard-hearted racetrackers would fail to crack a smile when Ed and his pal burst out of the starting gate in front of the stands and joyously sprinted around the first turn on a freshly harrowed track. Never mind that there were horses training nearby, as well as two guys sitting on the inside rails, mumbling "morons" and shaking their heads.

Ed's horse did not win, yet there was a happy ending. What else? It was a romantic comedy that had nothing really at all to do with racing.

It is also the price that the racing game must pay for its newfound level of exposure. For the past year, the game has never gone more than a few news cycles without some sort of high-profile coverage, good, bad, or ugly.

Beginning with the 2002 Breeders' Cup pick-six scandal (dramatized in an episode of the "Law & Order" television franchise), to the Funny Cide fairy tale during the 2003 Triple Crown, to the heavily promoted and $100 million-plus summertime run of "Seabiscuit," racing is slowly edging its way back into pop culture.

And so, with a brave smile, racing's promoters overlook such classic dialogue as "I don't want a horse relieving itself in my garage," and concentrate on the brighter side of shows like "Ed." Even with its meager 8.24 rating, that still represents an audience of more than 8 million viewers. Maybe some of them will head straight to the track, and right into the starting gate.

Sen. Maddy's memory lives on

It has been more than three years since the death of former California state Sen. Ken Maddy, which means it has been more than three years since horse racing has had a political leader of sufficient stature to deal with the intricacies of Sacramento politics.

Maddy, the father of most of California's pro-racing legislation, was forced to end his career in 1998 because of the term-limit law passed through ballot initiative. Democracy in action.

After leaving his powerful Senate position, Maddy gained some solace from his continued association with horse racing. He was an owner, a breeder, and a devoted horseplayer whose memory lives on in many ways, including the Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap, which will be run again on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. He is missed. Boy is he missed.