01/14/2005 12:00AM

Much-needed reason to cheer

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NEW YORK - With ugly sleet in the skies over Aqueduct and uglier race-fixing headlines on the front pages of the local tabloids, Friday in New York seemed a better day for escaping racing than attending it. Fortunately, a great escape was available because it was opening day for "Racing Stripes," the new movie about a zebra who wants to be a racehorse.

At the 11:30 a.m. show at the local octoplex, the audience numbered about 20, which broke down demographically as 65 percent pre-teen girls, 30 percent parents, and 5 percent escapist horseplayers. When the lights came up, 100 percent appeared charmed and delighted. Once word gets out, a bigger and broader audience should follow.

"Stripes" starts out like "Dumbo," with our adorable baby hero abandoned amid an overturned circus caravan, but quickly becomes more like a pork-free version of "Babe." This is a live-action movie, with computers making the animals' mouths move and a high-horsepower cast of actors supplying their voices: Dustin Hoffman as Tucker the Shetland pony, Whoopi Goldberg as Franny the goat, Mandy Moore as Sandy the show-jumper, Snoop Dogg as Reggie the bloodhound, Fred Thompson as Sir Trenton the evil stallion who won't let his progeny play with the striped kid, and Steve Harvey and David Spade as a couple of animated horseflies named Buzz and Scuzz.

Best of all is Joe Pantoliano as Goose, a "hit bird" pelican on the lam from race-fixing mobsters. (Okay, so it wasn't a total escape.) The on-screen actors do a splendid job, too, notably the British character actor Bruce Greenwood, whose Nolan Walsh is a more convincing horse trainer than Chris Cooper's turn as Tom Smith in "Seabiscuit," and Wendie Malick as the villainous board chairman of Turfway Park.

A band-box version of Turfway is the setting for the inevitable climactic race, in which Stripes the zebra (voiced by Frankie Muniz), ridden of course by our heroine the trainer's teen-age daughter, will eventually battle one of Sir Trenton's Thoroughbred sons for victory in the Kentucky Open - but not until Stripes and his jockey first learn numerous important Lessons about life and courage and fulfilling your dreams and all that good stuff. The flood of heartwarming bromides may be a bit much for grown-ups, as are all the pelican-poop jokes, but who can argue with the intentions behind Tucker's "Racing is for anyone with fire in their heart," or Franny's "Relationships are like racing - if you do it for love, you've already won"?

There's even a little gambling and not a killjoy note of disapproval about it. M. Emmet Walsh plays Woodzy, a grizzled racetrack clocker who spots Stripes's potential when he secretly times him doing a quarter-mile in 23 seconds. Woodzy is able to give Nolan Walsh the $5,000 entry fee for the Open and still have something left over to bet the zebra at 99-1, because he once cleaned up on a few of Walsh's horses and, he says, "I know a good bet when I see it."

Racing gets treated very well in this movie. "That's the racetrack, the best reason for a horse to be alive," Tucker tells an awed Stripes when the zebra first sees Turfway, conveniently located next to the farm they share with the rest of the menagerie. The horses and Stripes love to run so much that they gather secretly at night, humans not invited, to race for the sport of it. Kindly training methods and hard work are rewarded. Stripes drags logs around a plowed cornfield to build his stamina for the Open, while Malick's bluebloods are either pushed too hard or coddled with treadmills and saunas.

"Racing Stripes" is primarily a children's movie but is rated PG rather than G, apparently for some offscreen themes that younger children might find disturbing. Walsh is a widower because his wife was killed in a riding accident that turned him into an overprotective father. There's also an unsettling scene on the eve of the Open where Sir Trenton and the stallions surround Stripes and rear up en masse to stomp him, and we cut away to a nicked-up Stripes motionless on his side the next morning. Yet somehow, with the help of the pony, the goat, the show-jumper, the horseflies, and the pelican, Stripes gets his shot at glory that afternoon.

On a day when racing seemed in need of a smile, "Racing Stripes" provided plenty.