10/15/2002 11:00PM

Dramatic license? Fuhggedaboutit!


ARCADIA, Calif. - It's been a rough week for "The Sopranos," America's favorite television family.

On Monday, actors Lorraine Bracco and Dominic Chianese were denied the privilege of joining New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in the traditional Columbus Day parade. Apparently, the HBO series has become an affront to some influential members of the Italian-American community. Who knew?

Neither Bracco nor Chianese can be blamed, however, for the violence visited upon unsuspecting television viewers during last Sunday's episode of "The Sopranos." Neither one of them was involved in the scenes depicting a bunch of the wise guys taking a flyer with a racehorse, which sounded like a great idea on paper. After all, wasn't that actor Tony Sirico, aka Paulie Walnuts, standing next to Julio Canani in the Breeders' Cup Mile winner's circle a year ago? Maybe "The Sopranos" had racing in its blood. And then it went to film.

Racing fans have heard this tune before. Horse racing is a visual, visceral sport, bursting with great stories and larger-than-life personalities.

Why, then, is it so consistently impossible to get it right in mediums of mass entertainment?

The transgressions are unrelenting, in terms of details both large and small. From a trainer visiting his daughter the rider in the jockeys' room at Saratoga in "My Old Man," to the use of not-so-lookalike doubles for Phar Lap in "Phar Lap," to the weird fluctuation of odds - for dramatic purposes, no doubt - in "The Grifters," rarely have moviemakers allowed accuracy to get in the way of a plot point.

"The Sopranos" added its own gems to the canon. The boys were at Monmouth Park, but the race they were watching live took place at Aqueduct (picky picky). After the race, their jockey met them at the barn, still attired in helmet and silks, to join them for a flute of celebratory champagne. (The rider was played by Aaron Gryder, who spoke his line and nervously eyed his fellow actors as if they packed real heat.)

The backstretch scenes offered a wealth of groaners. The Thoroughbred, a chestnut filly, was cross-tied in the shed row for their inspection. Cowboy Mesh Tenney never even did that. Her trainer, a straight-talking woman, reached down and felt a tender shin . . . while wearing a glove.

Later on, when the filly colicked, the vet refused treatment because of unpaid bills. Big Tony had to rouse himself from the comfort of his suburban boudoir to meet the vet at the barn, and he was not a happy capo. The vet got his money, but the look he got from Tony - you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Maybe you would.

Anyway, whatever the vet gave the filly didn't work. The episode ended with Tony in the stall with the filly, lying flat on her side and looking more like the victim of a two-by-four between the eyes. There was no webbing on the stall door. There was no water bucket in the stall. There was, however, a goat. Ah, art.

It was disappointing. All the elements were in place for an entertaining interlude. Quality had been a hallmark of "The Sopranos" through its first three seasons, during which the writers and producers had tackled such varied subjects as psychiatry, private schools, prosthetic limbs, and the migration of ducks. Then came horse racing, and even a show like "The Sopranos" got it wrong. Maybe they've been getting the construction business wrong, too.

Now comes "Seabiscuit," a major studio production in full swing, as well as an HBO movie about Chris Antley, which is still in its early stages.

It is natural for the racing world to tingle with anticipation over such attention.

Mainstream entertainment means more exposure, and the people involved with "Seabiscuit" have terrific track records. There is every reason to believe that the game will be captured with all its fascinating texture. If Jeff Bridges can play both The Dude and the president, then Charles Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit, should be a snap.

Unfortunately, the last time Bridges graced a film with a racing context, the result was a train wreck called "Sympatico," which features Sharon Stone chasing a horse with a gun. Stay as far away from this one as possible.

A better buy will be available in November, when the two-disk DVD volume of "The Racing Game" is scheduled for release. Loosely based on the earliest works of Dick Francis, "The Racing Game" was a six-episode feast of rich mystery, produced by British TV in 1979. The main characters, private detectives, include a former top jockey who lost a hand in a riding accident and his highly physical sidekick.

The series had a one-shot showing in the U.S. on PBS, which means nobody saw it but us shut-ins. More than 20 years later, "The Racing Game" remains the best thing these eyes have ever seen, as far as the sport translating to the screen.

"The Sopranos" had their chance. It's back to the ducks.