04/23/2004 12:00AM

HBO show spoils own story


NEW YORK - Cable television's most popular network promotes itself with the slogan "It's not TV - it's HBO." Its newest offering, the documentary "Jockey," which debuts Monday night at 8 p.m. Eastern and will be heavily aired over the next three weeks during Triple Crown season, suggests a slight variation on that catchphrase: It's not journalism - it's HBO.

In the opening seconds of the film, a graphic tells us that "In America, horse racing brings in $17 billion a year, second only to pro football." What does this even mean? The national parimutuel handle is $15 billion, 80 percent of which is paid back to bettors. What is this being compared with in football? This pointless factoid sets the tone for a movie that sabotages its very good intentions with sloppy reporting and sensationalism.

"Jockey," written and directed by Emmy winner Kate Davis, spans two years in the lives of three riders with Louisiana roots: Randy Romero, Shane Sellers, and apprentice Chris Rosier. We live through Romero's liver and kidney illnesses, Sellers's comeback from a knee injury, and Rosier's attempt to break into the game.

After an initial half hour of scene-setting, the film turns to its political agenda: changing the scale of weights so that riders do not have to imperil their health by starving and purging themselves. It is a worthy crusade and one that can and should be won on its merits, but Davis's

84-minute documentary consistently chooses inflammatory and irrelevant material over a logical and balanced presentation.

It is a difficult issue to turn away from but an equally difficult film to watch, and not because of the utterly gratuitous full-frontal nudity of Rosier in the showers. Nudity appears to be a requirement of the "HBO: America Undercover" series of which this is a part, and whose other titles include "Showgirls: Glitz and Angst" and "Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle."

The real pornography in "Jockey," however, is the repeated replaying of Go for Wand's breaking down in deep stretch of the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Multiple slow-motion pan and head-on shots are shown over and over, including lingering and horrific footage of the injured filly struggling to her feet.

Go for Wand's breakdown, however, had absolutely nothing to do with the scale of weights. Its inclusion, and the filmmaker's morbid fascination with repeatedly showing the gruesome death of a horse, suggests that HBO and Davis were simply determined to make racing look as brutal and dangerous as possible.

"I had a hunch," Davis told the Associated Press in a recent interview, "that there was a dark side of racing that hadn't been exposed."

It's a shame that Davis didn't trust the relevant material, because a more sober presentation of an otherwise solid story would have been more compelling.

Sellers almost makes up for all these flaws. He is simply terrific throughout the film, a generous fund-raiser and an articulate and convincing advocate. He takes us inside the bathroom stalls and hotboxes in the jockeys' rooms and convinces us that low weight assignments are unnecessary and inhumane in a sport where racehorses are routinely breezed in morning workouts by much heavier exercise riders.

Such cogent moments are rare, though. There is no background or history about how the scale came into being and what purpose it serves, no authoritative presentation of the medical issues, no consideration of nutrition and diet, and no attempt to seek out a single advocate of the system being attacked. Pat Day and D. Wayne Lukas have publicly defended the status quo, but we don't hear from them, nor is racing's most famous weight-battler, Laffit Pincay Jr., ever mentioned.

Instead, the only possible reason offered for the current situation is an interviewer's uninformed and arrogant comment that owners and trainers care more about the welfare of horses than the lives of jockeys.

Unfortunately, "Jockey" seems to care more about exploiting both human and equine suffering for dramatic effect than about advancing its own very worthy cause. It could have made the same points and made them better without antagonizing people in racing and horrifying potential newcomers.

* A column about the new "Funny Cide" book in this space last Sunday referred to factual errors that appeared in the advance copies that the publisher sent to news organizations and book reviewers. Most of these errors were subsequently corrected and do not appear in the final edition of the book, which went on sale this week.