04/16/2003 12:00AM

It's tough anchoring a loose cannon

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Imagine what it's like to play straight man to Kenny Mayne. There he sits, innocent as a choirboy, well-groomed and smartly dressed, hair tossed just right. His expression is pleasant, his voice reassuring. Horse racing, obviously, is in trustworthy hands, at least for the duration of an ESPN telecast.

And then he says something like this, during the post parade for a race:

"That 'K' by their name means the horse's parents had sex at Keeneland."

Randy Moss, riding shotgun as co-host and analyst, maintains the straightest face possible and picks up from there, gently guiding the viewer back to reality after their brief, slightly surreal trip to the Mayne-land. That is his job. He loves it. And thank goodness for Randy Moss.

For those of us with enough seniority to recall the sight of Howard Cosell's toupee whipping around during a stormy 1983 Kentucky Derby telecast on ABC, or of Jack Whitaker's vocabulary seminars on a CBS Belmont show, or of Heywood Hale Broun's lavish Saratoga essays wrapped in that technicolor sportcoat, the emergence of Mayne as racing's most entertaining anchor has been a dream come true.

If nothing else, Mayne gives the game a bona fide entree into the greater world of sports. Fully exposed by ESPN's SportsCenter, his dry Sahara delivery and penchant for the absurd have been applied to everything from baseball to bocci, and now horse racing. It's one of those guilt-by-association things - if Mayne likes it, it must be cool. Such is his rep on the broadcast scene.

But every meal needs its meat and potatoes. So while Mayne does his best work giving the sport a slightly skewed fan's-eye view, it is Moss who provides the ESPN racing shows with industrial-strength glue.

To think he used to be an ink-stained wretch. Moss made his bones writing about horse racing for newspapers in Texas and his native Arkansas. Then came the 1990's, when sports grew like kudzu on cable TV and programs began raiding the print world for anyone who could talk, hold a microphone, and/or chew gum at the same time.

To his credit, Moss, now 44, waited until 1999 before succumbing to the temptations of the dark side. Then working for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, he stepped in at the last minute to join the ESPN broadcast team for the Preakness undercard. A month later he was hired full-time, and he has been on the road ever since. At least, it seems that way.

"I guess I'll make about 30 to 35 trips around the country every year," Moss said Wednesday morning, on the move again.

Moss was in an airport - Cincinnati this time - en route from his home in Tulsa (where he hosts the Winnercomm production "Wire-to-Wire," a racing recap that airs weekly on ESPN) to Lexington, where he will co-host the telecast of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on Saturday.

"I'm going in a day early so I can spend the afternoon at the Keeneland library," Moss said.

So much for the glamour of TV. While the rest of his colleagues are lunching at '21' or visiting the hair salon (not really), Moss hits the books, spending an inordinate amount of time in preparation for his broadcasts. Certainly more than he ever did in school. He calls it self-defense.

"In the newspaper business, if something deviates from the main story line, you've got time to think about what happened, dig up information and talk to people," Moss said. "Even if it's the most improbable of winners, you've got a chance to sound fairly up-to-date.

"In the TV business, you've got to do all that work beforehand. As soon as they cross the finish line, you'd better be ready with something about the horse and the people. Hopefully, it's also interesting."

In addition, Moss is faced with translation, converting his native tongue - the arcane jargon of racing - into a more to viewer-friendly dialect.

"That's a tightrope act," Moss said. "I try to talk to people who have some knowledge about racing, but don't know a whole lot. I don't want to talk over the heads of people who know nothing. But I don't want to insult the people who know a lot about the sport."

Makes sense. Still, it was with a certain reluctance last month that Moss brought up the esoteric subject of Clyde Van Dusen in the wake of Buddy Gil's victory in the Santa Anita Derby. Buddy will try to be the first gelding to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde did it in 1929. And to the general sporting world, so what? What color is a gelding?

"I told people they would be hearing it referred to a lot over the next month," Moss said. "Kenny kind of looked at me with this bemused expression, and I wondered where he was going to take it."

"It's also a fact," deadpanned Mayne, "that no gelding has ever successfully bred."

No fair.

"I do crack up a lot," Moss said. "Sometimes I think that's the greatest challenge of the job."