01/02/2002 12:00AM

Horseplayer B-movies get two big thumbs up


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I got the usual Christmas gifts over the holidays - ties, sweaters, socks - all the things your spouse or mother would want you to have.

Thank goodness, I also received a videotape, a rather obscure racing film called "Murphy's Stroke." I had never heard of it, which is surprising considering I've gone out of my way to view racing films, even when they were said to be awful.

But "Murphy's Stroke"? That was a new one for me. Maybe I missed it because it came out in 1980, or because it is rarely found in video stores. For that matter, I had never seen it anywhere - which would explain why my friend brought it to me from Europe.

There, I imagine, it takes on greater significance because it is based on a true story of a group of Irish gamblers who scored a betting coup by deceiving some British bookmakers.

What racing fan wouldn't like that? We are so used to the house winning that it is a cause for celebration when it loses.

The story is complicated, but essentially the gamblers pull a fast one by bringing a horse over from Ireland to England with form the bookies won't recognize. They arrange to have the horse run under a low-profile English trainer's name, when it fact the horse has been training in Ireland with a masterful trainer, played by Pierce Brosnan of James Bond fame.

Then the gamblers find a way to increase the horse's odds by betting him in a multiple-race wager, using more inside information. The bookies, however, are unaware of this until it is too late.

The horse romps, and they celebrate. But a slip here and there, and they are caught.

Eventually fined, the Irish gamblers still take pleasure in knowing they had beaten the system.

A similar theme is evident in another racing classic, 1986's "The Longshot," starring Tim Conway. Conway plays one of four degenerate gamblers whose lives revolve around betting on horses.

Miserable and penniless, they fall victim to greed. They trust a backstretch groom, who tells them he can arrange for a longshot to win a race.

It makes for an interesting comedy. The critics never thought so, but I doubt they were horseplayers.

But the all-time degenerate-gambler classic is "Let it Ride." Released in 1989, "Let It Ride" features Richard Dreyfuss in a movie that did not win him an Oscar, but won the hearts of bettors.

Dreyfuss stars as Trotter, a frequent loser who pledges to his wife that he will cut down on gambling at the track. Of course, that doesn't happen.

Then one lucky day he wins race after race, all with longshots. And his methods of handicapping . . . well, just about every horseplayer can relate to them.

The movie is an hour and a half of wishful-thinking fantasy. That's why horseplayers love these films.

They aren't great movies. At times "The Longshot" and "Let It Ride" are so bad they are funny.

It's the dream of the huge score that makes them appealing. Bettors want to experience it, hopefully in real life, but if not, at least at the movies.