01/27/2004 1:00AM

Best punch line not a joke


HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - The evening began with a flourish from the worshipful "Seabiscuit," wandered politely down memory lane with refugees from both "The Partridge Family" and "The Monkees," then got clubbed with a baseball bat and stuffed in a car trunk by one very good fella who was determined to leave a dramatic impression.

The 33rd Eclipse Awards dinner, held at the Westin Diplomat hard by the balmy turquoise shores of the Atlantic, could have gone down in history as a very pleasant, fairly proper event featuring a solid job by first-time master of ceremonies Gary Stevens, moving moments from such iconic industry figures as Marylou Whitney and Richard Duchossois, and the climactic acceptance of Mineshaft's Horse of the Year trophy by Will Farish, the U.S. ambassador to Britain. Cue the band. Thanks for coming.

Instead, the celebration of Thoroughbred racing's champions of 2003 gets to be remembered as the night the real world briefly imposed its messy will, and somebody got to say out loud what every horseplayer, every trainer, every jockey, and a whole lot of owners mumble to themselves more than they would admit. The best part was, everybody laughed.

Of course, no one would ever say to Joe Pesci that he is in horse racing to amuse us. Not unless you want to get scared silly or shot in the foot. But from the moment he stepped to the microphones, standing on a platform just used to elevate presenter Julie Krone, the Oscar-winning tough guy had his way with an audience more accustomed to hearing from long-retired Hall of Fame football players and racetrack executives. Not exactly open mike night at the local improv.

"Hi," Pesci said as he stepped up to give the award for best 3-year-old male to the Funny Cide entourage. "I'm your new neighbor."

With that, new horse owner Pesci launched into a dead-on impression of the hardboot warnings he got when he bought into the talented young filly who bears his name. How "this is a tough game" and how "you don't know anything about this game," even though the four-legged Pesci had won her first two starts impressively before finishing ninth in the Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream Park last Saturday.

"All I know," Pesci said, "is my horse was in the stretch the other day and somebody shot her in the [bleepin'] eye. Now you're playing my game!"

Thus occurred a transcendent Eclipse Award moment, insignificant in the larger world of war and famine, but trumping forever such dinner memories as Bertha Wright's bitter harangue (she only wanted to know where Calumet Farm went), Allen Jerkens's two-word acceptance speech ("Thank you"), or the blonde wig worn by Randy Moss in tribute to the missing Bo Derek.

Kenny Mayne, who had become the go-to Eclipse emcee in recent years but was busy this time with the Super Bowl, taped one of his familiar wiseguy messages (describing Funny Cide's owners as "eight penniless guys who found this horse by the side of the road"), ending it with a mock "oops, the tape's still running" diatribe that went on too long.

The Mayne video moment was funny enough but completely unnecessary, especially since it had the effect of subverting the flesh-and-blood host of the ceremony. Stevens had his rocky patches - mostly when forced to deliver scripted laugh lines that fell flat - but he soon hit his stride and brought a star-power integrity to the proceedings. Gary Stevens has always been best when playing Gary Stevens, even in his memorable turn as George Woolf in "Seabiscuit."

"God knows we don't need another athlete-turned-actor," cracked David Cassidy, the Partridge-turned-horse owner who presented Eclipse Awards to trainer Bobby Frankel and jockey Jerry Bailey.

Cassidy in turn was zinged by Davy Jones, the Monkee-turned-amateur jump rider who said he was excited to be there because, "I used to watch David Cassidy when I was a little boy." Will the Sixties never die?

Jones presented the awards for both owner and breeder to Dr. John Chandler of Juddmonte Farms, but could have tossed in a quick chorus of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" as an appropriate echo to the sentiments of Marylou Whitney, whose Bird Town was awarded the trophy for best 3-year-old filly.

"I can't believe this is happening to me," she said, and then, to her husband, John Hendrickson, "You made my dreams come true."

Dreams die hard in horse racing. The Whitney colors had not adorned a champion in more than 40 years, back in the days when Silver Spoon roamed the land for the late C.V. Whitney and his new bride, Marylou.

Wayne Hughes knows just how she feels. For the past decade, the West Coast storage-unit tycoon has spent nothing but money in search of good horses. When the envelope was opened, and the name of Breeders' Cup winner Action This Day was announced as best 2-year-old male, Hughes had his champion - as well as a chance to set the record straight. He had grown weary of hearing how much he had spent, and how "modest" had been his success.

"I'm not in racing to win races," Hughes said. "I'm in racing to race."

As a lasting message, that one even topped Pesci.