01/27/2005 1:00AM

Can TV create racing craze?

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NEW YORK - The richest prize in racing last weekend was neither Saturday's $150,000 San Marcos nor Sunday's $150,000 Palos Verdes, but the $414,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's in Las Vegas. This weekend, even the $1 million purse for the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream may be equaled by a new Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans.

In all fairness, these are the only two weekends of the year when a handicapping tournament offers more money than any stakes race. Now is the time, though, for the racing industry to pay attention to this phenomenon and consider seriously whether these tournaments may not represent a spectacular business and marketing opportunity for horse racing.

Look what has happened with poker. A decade ago, America's classic card game was a rounding error on the ledger of American gambling, a game for old-timers in local lodge basements and a few casino-town hustlers who devoured one another.

"We closed our poker room in the 90's" said John Avello, the director of the race and sports book at Bally's. "It was a totally dead game."

At this year's DRF/NTRA tournament, Bally's was offering poker again for the first time since, with nine tables and a long waiting list. Across the street at the Bellagio, regulars in games as high as $4,000 a bet were bemoaning an imminent temporary shutdown of the cavernous poker room for a third renovation and expansion.

The real action, though, is happening offsite. Online poker has become a billion-dollar industry, and at least two websites offer pots of more than $200,000 every weekend. Poker merchandise is flying off the shelves of major retailers, and millions of Americans are watching over a dozen hours of poker programming a week on four different cable networks.

It's all due to tournaments and television. All across the country, couch potatoes have been sparked by the idea that they can be a champion at something if they study a little and play their cards right, and that they might parlay a couple of hundred dollars in entry fees into a life-changing score. It's what everyone wishes would happen when there's a pick six carryover, but that can never work on as grand a scale because bigger players get to start with more chips in racing.

The spectacular success of poker-tournament telecasts has brought the game not only exposure and sponsors but also has taught a nation how to play Texas hold 'em. Imagine if we could get another 10 or 20 million people learning how to read the past performances and box exactas.

Everyone credits the success of the telecasts to the development of the under-the-table camera that allows everyone watching to see the contestants' cards and play along at home. The subtler but equally important innovation was realizing that the audience does not care that these are not live shows and that they work much better as post-produced virtual movies, just like most so-called reality shows. All those slick graphics, mathematical analyses and moments of high drama you see on the World Series of Poker are carefully crafted for mass consumption weeks after a winner has been named.

ESPN is now going to try to work the same magic with a handicapping tournament. The same team that produces those poker shows was all over the NHC last weekend, filming thousands of hours of footage that will be spliced down to a one-hour special airing Feb. 20, right between a WSOP show and SportsCenter. The point won't be that Jamie Michelson Jr. of West Bloomfield, Mich., took the $200,000 first prize, which we've known for a week, but to show America that handicapping horse races is a fascinating game of skill and sport that you too could be a champion at someday.

It's only an hour, but it could be the start of something big. In the meantime, tracks would be remiss not to fuel the movement with more and richer tournaments of their own. Don't think for a minute that this deprives the industry of needed revenue by diverting money from parimutuels to intramural contests. The racebook handle at Bally's during the NHC was twice as high as on a normal Saturday. Also, tournaments are increasingly being played with live bankrolls rather than mythical ones, and either way players have studied longer and harder than usual and back or hedge their tournament opinions with real money on the side.

It might sound crazy that tournaments could provide that elusive catalyst to get a wider audience playing our game - but no crazier than the idea just a few years ago that millions of people would watch strangers play cards on television and long to join them.