07/29/2002 12:00AM

Follow bouncing heads to the track

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The most exclusive club in racing inducted two new members this weekend. Jockeys Jerry Bailey and Jon Court were enshrined in the Bobble Head Brotherhood, running the ranks to seven.

The roster is sure to swell in the months to come. Giving away bobble head dolls - plastic figurines with oversized, spring-mounted heads made in a racing personality's likeness - has become the promotion du jour for racetracks and big business for the sports-collectibles business.

Consider the bonanza for Bailey's bobble head. Saratoga Race Course gave away 50,441 dolls to paying customers on Sunday, a figure that includes handouts to Saratoga's notorious spinners. Incredibly, Saratoga had budgeted for just such a frenzy. Thousands of bobble-heads were left over.

Racing's bobble head craze, borrowed from baseball, got its start on July 1, 2001, when Hollywood Park gave away 20,000 bobble head dolls of jockey Chris McCarron. The doll was the first racing-inspired bobble head ever produced, according to bobhead.com, which specializes in the secondary market for the dolls.

A little over one year later, there are seven racing bobble heads in circulation, including McCarron. Six are jockeys, and one is a trainer. All are men. More than 100,000 dolls have been given away.

Hollywood Park, which is owned by Churchill Downs, followed up McCarron two weeks later with Laffit Pincay Jr., the all-time leading rider by victories. This year, Hollywood went with Bob Baffert, the brotherhood's only training member.

The record for sheer frenzy produced by a bobble head was probably set at Churchill Downs by - you guessed it - a Pat Day giveaway.

On Nov. 3, 2001, Churchill had 10,000 bobble-head Day likenesses to give away to paying customers. The gates opened five minutes early at 11:25, and by 11:55, exhausted admissions personnel had given away every doll. People had camped out since the early morning. Local newspapers covered the promotion as if Churchill was giving away Cadillacs with general admission.

"Whew," said Kevin Marie Nuss, Churchill's director of marketing, "It certainly was a success." Nuss said that Churchill plans to do another bobblehead giveaway at this year's fall meet, but she declined to identify the model. Speculation centers on a doll in the likeness of D. Wayne Lukas, the popular trainer who has won the Kentucky Derby four times.

The Day bobble head doll is still coveted, especially in Kentucky. On eBay, bidders have run up a Day doll to $71, the highest-priced racing bobble head on the site. Only four dolls are currently being offered for sale.

So who's second? It's Jon Court, a 41-year-old Midwest journeyman who has never made the top 10 list by wins or earnings but is immensely popular at Ellis Park. A total of 5,000 dolls resembling Court were given away Saturday at the Henderson, Ky., track, and lines stretched into the parking lot several hours before post time, Ellis officials said. On Monday, a Court doll had been run up to $58 on eBay. Another 51 dolls have been put up for sale, just two days after the giveaway.

The Court giveaway was unusual in that 75 of the boxes containing the dolls included trading cards of Court. The recipients were asked to return on Sunday to get the cards autographed by the jockey.

A doll resembling Mario Pino, the 41-year-old jockey based in the mid-Atlantic, is tied for third by price on eBay. Pino's doll - 5,000 were given away at Colonial Downs on June 21 - is going for $41, the same price as a McCarron doll. Pincay is close behind at $40.21.

The cost of the bobble head giveaway probably ranks with free T-shirts or baseball caps. According to Philip Chow, a representative of Yida Trading Company, a manufacturer of bobble head dolls in Hong Kong, the typical bulk price for one bobble head doll is anywhere form $1.50 to $2.00. So a run of 10,000 dolls sets a track back about only $20,000.

Saratoga, in fact, is planning on making up a portion of the promotional cost by offering its Bailey leftovers on its website for $14.95 each.

"This is something we wanted anyone to be able to participate in, even if you weren't at the track," said Bill Nader, vice president of Saratoga.

Bargain-hunters would be advised to shop around, though: 200 Bailey bobble heads were already on eBay less than 24 hours after the doll was given away. Most were starting at $9.95.