05/11/2003 11:00PM

Image, as ever, is everything

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction?" wrote Mark Twain. "Fiction, after all, has to make sense."

Thanks, Mr. Clemens, for the warning. Still, the mind of the American horse racing fan must be reeling. For the past month, the game has been exposed to the highest levels of media notoriety, where such misty concepts as truth and fiction take a backseat to tabloid appetite. The idea that a jockey would have something illegal in his hand at the moment of victory in the Kentucky Derby does not have to make sense, does it? The idea itself makes news, as long as someone is willing to believe it might be true.

Hopefully, by the time this is read, horse racing's "photo-gate" will have come to a head and begun to wither away. For those who owe Jose Santos an abject apology, the line forms to the left. And take heart, oh ye of little journalistic sense, there is a chance you could find residual fame as part of Harry Shearer's syndicated radio program "Le Show," heard each Sunday on National Public Radio.

Racing made Shearer's "Apologies of the Week" in April when Eric Young, president of the Northlands Spectrum harness operation in Edmonton, apologized for an advertisement that was considered tasteless in its references to "Baghdad Bob" - Iraqi minister of information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf - who became known for his wildly inaccurate statements.

The Northlands ad reportedly compared horse racing to a holy war, employing such terms as jihad, infidel drivers, and "jackals of revenge," and suggested that "Bagdad Bob" would make an effective race-caller, since he was not above "a little inaccuracy to make a race more exciting."

"A mistake was made," Young said. "We want to apologize. We didn't intend to offend anyone."

Fair enough. But let's keep things in perspective. This, after all, is the world of advertising, in which self-policing standards of truth and taste have long ago been abandoned. The idea is to grab attention, which is exactly what the ads for Diamond Denim jeans did last week when they aired on ESPN's pre-Derby racing shows.

With Bob Baffert doing a good job as celebrity pitchman (nothing gets between him and his Diamond Denims), the ad features a slick, three-dimensional computer graphic of the male torso. As Baffert recites his lines, the graphic rotates to display the crotch area, which is further highlighted by a circle, just as Baffert says, " . . . made with extra space right where you need it most."

This is funny stuff. No apologies necessary. The audience is entertained. And the best part of ad is saved for last, when it is revealed that these are "the official jeans of the NTRA."

It will be interesting to see how the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - the league office - will handle the fallout from photo-gate. The public denigration of a star jockey and America's foremost race deserves an aggressive response.

And just when things were going so well, at least in terms of public relations. The night before the Kentucky Derby, David Letterman picked up his desk phone and put in a call to Dave Johnson, the veteran race-caller.

Recall that in early 2000 Johnson's trademark "and down the stretch they come!" was designated by Letterman as the official "Late Show" catchphrase of the new millennium. Johnson, who was not entirely surprised by the Derby eve call, was asked to treat the Letterman audience with a couple of robust down-the-stretch-they-comes. Dave delivered. David giggled and grinned. Horse racing was, at least for a moment, hip.

At the same time, out on the streets and racked prominently next to grocery checkout lines, the May 12 edition of People magazine hyped its special double issue of "50 Most Beautiful People."

Since beauty is so difficult to define, this is no time to question the requisites of the "50" list. Anyway, humorist Richard Armour once warned that, "Beauty is only skin deep, and the world is full of thin-skinned people."

So there were Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Daniel Day-Lewis and all the usual suspects, movie stars mostly, a few singers, and then suddenly, there on page 130 - Gary Stevens. Yes that Gary Stevens, Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Derby winner, photographed leaning against a tree, wearing a come-hither smile and a pair of denims (Diamond?) that fit just right.

"Yes, I've been getting it from all directions," Stevens sighed on Derby Day as he tried to deal with this peculiar piece of fame. "My mom even wondered if they had to shoot the picture the way they did, but otherwise she was okay with it."

Stevens, of course, will be part of the publicity machine about to roll out for the summertime release of the movie "Seabiscuit." His role as George Woolf has Hollywood buzzing. Or something like that. Whatever the noise, it can't be bad for racing.

Unlike photo-gate, which couldn't be worse.