01/20/2004 12:00AM

Just make 'em laugh, Gary

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Monday, in the San Marcos Handicap at Santa Anita Park, Gary Stevens nursed Sweet Return along on a modest pace, practically lulling his audience to sleep, and came away with all the applause.

Such tactics work great if you're dealing with 1 1/4 miles on the grass, and Stevens is a master of the technique. Next Monday, however, at the Eclipse Awards Dinner in Miami, he will need to pick up the tempo.

As master of ceremonies for the 33rd Eclipse Awards Dinner, Stevens will be wading into dark and mysterious waters. It's one thing to thread the needle deep in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby aboard a 1,200-pound horse going 35 miles per hour. It is quite another to face a ballroom full of black-clad strangers choking down mass-produced banquet food and expecting big yucks from the guy on stage.

The challenge is compounded by the act that Stevens must follow. For the last four years, ESPN's Kenny Mayne has stamped the Eclipse Awards emcee job with his own brand of droll, cock-eyed humor, mixed with a true fan's love of the game.

Unfortunately, Mayne will be otherwise occupied all next week with ESPN programs surrounding the Super Bowl in Houston. Stevens, whose career as an actor can still be considered budding, agreed to the gig when approached by representatives of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

"It's against my better judgment," Stevens cracked when asked why in the world he would take the job. "But it is a challenge - something I've never done before. And I do like challenges."

To this point, Stevens's time on stage has been spent mostly accepting honors, rather than dishing them out. His address to the Hall of Fame audience at Saratoga Springs, upon his induction in 1997, remains an unforgettably emotional moment. At the 1999 Eclipse Awards Dinner he stepped up to receive a long overdue trophy for his accomplishments the previous year.

Having sailed through his maiden voyage as an actor, playing George Woolf in "Seabiscuit," Stevens sees the Eclipse Awards as a variation on the theme.

"In a way, it's a performance," Stevens said. "It allows me a chance to perform in front of cameras, as well as a live audience. Any time you're able to do that is good experience."

Stevens will make the transition from racing silks at Santa Anita next Sunday afternoon to tuxedoed ringmaster for the Eclipse Awards on Monday night with a detour through Hollywood on Sunday evening. That night, he plans to attend a post-Golden Globe Awards party being thrown by Universal Studios, whose "Seabiscuit" is nominated for Best Dramatic Picture.

One red-eye flight later, Stevens will emerge into the south Florida sunlight and report to an Eclipse Awards rehearsal. That's show biz.

"It's a huge honor to be asked," Stevens said. "I plan to make sure it's fun, and that everybody enjoys themselves. I've got a writer, so it won't be 100 percent Gary Stevens material. And I know I've got some big shoes to fill, after past hosts like John Forsythe, Chris Lincoln, Tim Conway, and, of course, Kenny Mayne."

Well put. And does Stevens plan on asking Mayne for any advice?

"No," he replied, delivering the line in perfect Kenny Mayne deadpan.

While Mayne has imbued recent Eclipse evenings with his sardonic twists and turns - he once ordered take-out food to be sent to Frank Stronach's table as a peace offering from the NTRA - it was Forsythe who set the standard for the ceremony, investing the evening with a dignity befitting the accomplishments being honored.

During the 1980's, the racing game further benefited from Forsythe's high profile as the star of the highly rated prime time soap opera "Dynasty." If Blake Carrington thought horse racing was cool, then there must be something to it.

It also helped that Forsythe was a die-hard racing fan who has owned such stakes winners as Targa and Mamselle Bebette. Today, he lives on his horse farm in the Santa Ynez Valley and still has a few runners in training. Forsythe greeted the news that Stevens would host the Eclipse Awards with old- school grace.

"I hate guys who are that good, and that versatile," Forsythe said with a laugh. "I saw him in 'Seabiscuit,' and I thought he was pretty damn good."

Ah, but "Seabiscuit" was a movie, in which actors would have the benefit of a second take, or a third, or a 13th. Highlights from the Eclipse Awards Dinner will be edited and packaged for an ESPN2 telecast on Feb. 7, but Stevens will be doing his bit in real time.

"He'll handle it," Forsythe said. "There is a lot of preparation involved - knowing the names of everyone, their background. It's amazing how it sticks with you if you learn it, and how it can be very helpful as the show progresses.

"In the end, I think audiences are not necessarily expecting perfection," Forsythe added. "A gaffe every once in awhile never hurt, as long as you smile and they know you're sorry."

His advice to the rookie?

"Just stay in there," Forsythe said, "and keep punching."