01/04/2006 1:00AM

How's his dancing? Bueno


ARCADIA, Calif. - Hot on the heels of the near miss by Bethany Frankel (Bobby's daughter) on Martha Stewart's version of "The Apprentice" comes another name familiar to horse racing fans, throwing his hat into the reality show ring and daring the world to watch.

Kenny Mayne, best known in these parts for his work as droll host and all-around smart-aleck on ESPN's national horse racing coverage, is one of 10 celebrities teaming up with professional dancers for the second season of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

Who knew?

All the time, while he was sitting there alongside straight man Randy Moss during shows from Belmont, Saratoga, Del Mar, or wherever, Mayne was barely stifling a bad case of happy feet beneath their standard issue desk. "Gotta dance, gotta dance..."

Director: "What's that tapping? I hear tapping."

Asst. director: "I think it's Kenny again, doing his Bojangles bit."

At first blush, it looks as if Mayne was ordered to show up for DWTS by his uber-masters at the Disney Co., owners of ABC and ESPN, as the ultimate absurdity in corporate cross-promotion:

"Now that you've seen him rumba, don't forget to catch Kenny on ESPN's 'The Mayne Event.' "

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it was also possible that the show was looking for an acceptable replacement part for the popular John O'Hurley (aka J. Peterman from "Seinfeld") from season one. Tall, charming, and prematurely gray (or is it prematurely tall?), the 46-year-old Mayne would seem to fit comfortably into a group that features George Hamilton (who danced divinely in "Love at First Bite") Tatum O'Neal (who threw heat in the original "Bad News Bears"), and Tia Carrere (who put the schwing! in "Wayne's World").

Mayne says no, though, that his name was dropped in the ear of a "Dancing With the Stars" producer and things went from there. He was initially reluctant (even though his wife and daughters were gung-ho), but the final push over the cliff came when he learned that one of the contestants would be none other than Jerry Rice - as in 38 NFL records and three Super Bowl rings Jerry Rice - who retired just last September and is obviously bored out of his mind.

"Jerry was the cool factor," Mayne said. "If it was good enough for Jerry, why not?"

(Apparently, it seems to be every American's ambition to expose himself to some sort of public scrutiny these days. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit to a handful of such appearances, even though they only remotely resemble what Mayne is doing. I once clawed my way onto "Win Ben Stein's Money," made it to the booth, then sat helplessly while Ben stripped me of my dignity and left me with precious little of his money. Then, two years ago, I "sang" a ballad onstage with legendary folkies John Stewart and Nick Reynolds at one of their Kingston Trio Fantasy Camps, and they were of no help at all.)

Mayne was reached on Wednesday, the day before the show, claiming to be somewhere in the L.A. area, where there was a little college football game being played at the Rose Bowl that night.

The background noise, though, sounded a lot like some SoHo loft full of huffing and puffing, with background music and a shrill voice cajoling, "Mr. Tee-Vee Star, you have time to spend on the phone when you still waltz like a minivan?"

Mayne hung up and called back an hour later. His professional partner, with whom he has been practicing some 18 hours a day, is Andrea Hale, a two-time national ballroom dance champion.

"The cha-cha is our first dance, which is the only one I can actually do even half-way well," he said. "I've started learning the second dance, but I'll need to polish it if we get to - I mean when we get to - the second round."

Mayne was asked if his experience as a quarterback for the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Rebels comes in handy on the competitive dance floor.

"You would think so," he said, "but it's not always true. I don't think I've worked this hard at anything athletically in 25 years. Anyway, I've got a really bad ankle from a football injury. I feel like a $4,000 claimer, some 9-year-old that you're trying to get a couple more races out of.

"If you can believe it, there's some offshore betting service that has put up a line on this thing," Mayne said. "I'm the longest shot, but they've got Rice the second longest shot, and I peg him to win the whole thing."

"Dancing With The Stars" airs Thursday nights at eight, with the couples coming back Friday nights for a half-hour show to find out who made the cut.

"Unlike other sporting events, my goal is not to be the best," Mayne said. "In this case, it's 'don't be the worst,' because each time you're not the worst, you should survive to the next round. So I'm hoping there's one person who's a bigger dork than I am. But I know it won't be Jerry Rice."