02/28/2003 12:00AM

Fix Six flick is no 'Seabiscuit'


NEW YORK - This is the year that movies are supposed to make horse racing a national passion again, thanks to "Seabiscuit," which will open July 25 with a splashy $25 million marketing budget. The racing industry has understandably hitched itself to the movie's coattails. At the recent Eclipse Awards, actors from the film handed out several awards and surrounded the sport's top officials at dinner.

Such an embrace is unlikely for filmdom's next venture into racing. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Home Box Office announced Thursday that Robert Wuhl, the creator and star of HBO's recently canceled "Arli$$," will co-write, direct, and produce an original movie about the 2002 Breeders' Cup Fix Six.

"Seabiscuit," which is expected to duck the inconvenient question of whether Kayak II was stiffed so that his popular stablemate could register a heartwarming victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, represents one strain of racing movies. These pictures are populated by adorable little girls who love horses, scrappy jockeys with hearts of gold, and kindly old horse trainers who save the family farm by winning the big race.

The other and equally prevalent type focuses on the bad guys, usually gamblers, hatching a racetrack scam similar to what Chris Harn and his Drexel University pals tried to pull off last Oct. 26. Anyone tempted to be overly dismayed by the HBO project may find comfort in the fact that there is a long history of such movies, which were made most often when the sport was enjoying its greatest growth, back in the days of Seabiscuit.

A list of all horse-racing movies lensed since 1930 on the website about.com reveals that racing used to be as popular a movie subject as wizards and superheroes are today, and that there were several horse operas a year. The 185 listed films break down as follows by decade:

o 1930's: 69

o 1940's: 38

o 1950's: 38

o 1960's: 9

o 1970's: 7

o 1980's: 17

o 1990's: 8

The two most interesting points are the brief resurgence of racing movies in the 1980's, perhaps reflecting the decade of great champions and Triple Crowns that preceded it; and the falloff from the 50's to the 60's, where the paltry nine titles include such marginal qualifiers as 1964's "McHale's Navy" (the crew "acquires a racehorse that makes a Japanese submarine run aground," according to TV Guide).

Yet throughout the decades, more than half the racing movies feature a botched betting coup of some sort. The HBO movie does not yet have a title, but could simply borrow any from the following quartet synopsized in the TV Guide database:

"Fast Companions" (1932): Tom Brown plays a crooked jockey who conspires with gamblers to "swindle the punters at small-town racetracks. When a plucky orphan [Mickey Rooney] arrives on the scene, Brown mends his ways and falls for Maureen O'Sullivan."

"The Day the Bookies Wept" (1939): Joe Penner and Betty Grable buy "a nag who runs like the wind when a few gallons of beer are poured into her."

"A Nice Little Bank That Should Be Robbed" (1958): Tom Ewell and Mickey Rooney stick up a bank to buy a racehorse, then have to rob another one to pay for its feed and training. (Sound familiar, horse owners?) They get caught and the bank gets the horse, who goes on to earn a fortune.

"Win, Place or Steal" (1975): Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and Alex Karras "try to scheme their way into a fortune by using a parimutuel machine at the track."

The title of the British film "The Hundred Pound Window" probably wouldn't translate well to an American audience, but its synopsis suggests that not much has changed since its release in 1943: An auditor "finds himself in a job at the racetrack where he works as a clerk at the betting windows. He soon becomes involved with gamblers who con him into participating in their crooked schemes."

Casting the Fix Six movie should be fun. Any three losers from Central Casting can fill the crooks' roles, while Howie Mandel and Mike Ditka seem naturals for NYRA's Bill Nader and Glen Mathes, who alerted authorities to the suspicious payoffs. Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz character from "Apocalypse Now" would make a fine Don Groth of Catskill OTB, eerily certain that it was just "a lucky day for a lucky customer." Unfortunately, Peter Sellers is no longer with us to lend his demented "Dr. Strangelove" character to the role of Autotote's Brooks Pierce, pounding his arm while insisting that "We've done the autopsy and do not have any question about the veracity of the bets."

Perhaps Pierce's even more famous characterization of the story - "good for racing" - would make the best title. Given that half a dozen track-scam movies a year were coming out during the peak of racing's popularity, HBO's new venture may not be such a terrible thing.