01/13/2005 1:00AM

'Dream Derby' sheds reality on weight

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NEW YORK - Last Monday night's debut episodes of Game Show Network's "American Dream Derby" prompted a number of fascinating questions:

* Does every horse owner really live in a great big mansion?

* Was that fake-looking manure the contestants had to pick up with their hands the real thing or some composite whipped up by the props department?

* Does every "reality show" have to include some version of manure-handling, blood-drinking, or worm-eating?

The most interesting question, though, may have been the one unwittingly raised about handicap weights in racing.

Here's what happened. The 12 contestants, vying for an ultimate prize of $250,000 and a stable of eight racehorses, were each asked to sprint the 110 yards from the sixteenth pole to the finish line at Santa Anita and were timed individually. Their clockings ranged from around 13 seconds for Aaron Coen, a muscled 22-year-old student, to 23 seconds for Susan Bosso, a less-muscled 45-year-old hotel sales manager. Before Aaron got to celebrate his apparent victory, though, the contestants were informed that these were merely time trials to determine the handicap weights they would now carry in a 12-human race out of the starting gate.

What should the assignments have been?

In horse racing, or so we are told, a pound or two makes a difference in the outcome of a race. Some members of the cult of weight claim confidently that three pounds or five pounds equal a length, in the absence of any supporting evidence and in the face of common sense. (When's the last time you saw a horse lose his rider and, with 120 pounds off his back, run off to win by 24 to 40 lengths?)

Even that dubious formula seems absent from the assignment of handicap weights, though. When Horse A is assigned 119 pounds and Horse B 118 in one of the 38 Grade 1 races still run under handicap conditions, is the racing secretary saying he has determined that Horse A is precisely one-third or one-fifth of a length faster than Horse B? A spread of 10 pounds is average for the difference between a 3-5 favorite and a 30-1 straggler. Are we saying only two to three lengths separate them in ability?

Let's play along with the fiction, though, and try to make a conversion. Obviously there are complicating factors. The humans are much smaller than horses; this race was only 110 yards; Aaron and Linda probably do not belong in the same field under any conditions, and the contestants were not being ridden by anyone hitting them with a stick - though that would have been far more entertaining than the manure-handling. Still, if a pound or two can determine a photo-finish between 1,000-pound animals, shouldn't it take the same or less to affect the wee humans?

Not exactly. To bring this field closer together at the wire, it took a spread of 120 pounds, which is what Aaron had to carry as opposed to Susan's zero, with everyone else at broad intervals in between them. Aaron complained bitterly about his assignment, sounding not entirely unlike Bobby Frankel, and finished off the board. So apparently it takes 120 pounds to make a difference for 150-pound competitors, which might be worth remembering the next time you're about to toss a horse off your ticket over a two-pound swing in the weights.

American Dream Derby was trying to randomize the result of its footrace, as opposed to the 38 Grade 1 stakes still run under handicap weights, where the idea is supposed to be to find out who the best horse is, not to conduct a laboratory experiment or a lottery. A Grade 1 handicap is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, liquid gas or freezer burn. The Breeders' Cup made a commendable announcement this week to stop encouraging such races, by denying them purse supplements.

At least the handicaps on American Dream Derby had a good outcome: They made a photo-finish winner of Dan Pellegrin, the Louisiana pharmacist who had been the game's slowest man in the time trials. When the show resumes Monday at 9 p.m., every right-thinking horseplayer will be rooting for Dan, not only because he is 52 and looks like he enjoys the occasional donut but also because he has attended 15 Kentucky Derbies. He has the weary look of a man who has spent many an afternoon looking at past performances, trying to figure out how a pound or two can possibly affect the outcome of a horse race.