01/18/2005 12:00AM

New ESPN sport: Horseplaying

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LAS VEGAS - The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship this Friday and Saturday will have a different look to it. Not only that, but a lot more people will get a look at it.

Riding the wave of poker tournaments on TV and the increased acceptance of gambling-related programming, ESPN will be filming the event from every angle, much the same way it does the World Series of Poker.

A total of 13 cameras will be used, including seven that will move around the Bally's race book to catch contestants handicapping and cheering for their horses, another five lipstick-size point-of-view cameras that will be mounted on the wall behind the mutuel tellers to catch all the bets being made, and a Jib camera on a mechanical, cranelike arm that will be able to swoop down from above. Including producers, assistants, cameramen, and sound people, there will be in excess of 30 crew members documenting the play of the 214 contestants.

All of the action will be edited down to a one-hour special that will air on Feb. 20 at 5 p.m. Eastern, following a WSOP show and before a live 6 p.m. "SportsCenter."

Peter Rotondo, the NTRA's director of television, explains how it came together.

"Poker has really taken off with TV, and there's no reason why horse racing tournaments can't do a similar show and reach a lot more people," he said. "The NTRA has a tight budget, so we couldn't create a new event, but the National Handicapping Championship was a natural."

For the past few years, Rotondo said, the Television Games Network covered the NHC live while the NTRA produced an Eclipse Awards show that was shown on ESPN three weeks later. Last year, Rotondo said, discussions began about switching some of the programming, and it seemed more natural for the Eclipse Awards to be aired live (which TVG will do next Monday) while the handicapping tournament gets the poker treatment and can still be an exciting made-for-TV event on tape a few weeks after it's over. Rotondo said ESPN agreed with the changes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"It's a win-win for everyone," he said.

The NTRA hired Peter Lasser to produce the show. After a long career with ABC (10 Olympic Games, "Monday Night Baseball," "Wide World of Sports") and other sports networks, Lasser has been doing more horse racing, including the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup preview shows for NBC, as well as the Sunshine Millions telecast, the next of which will be on Jan. 29.

"Horse racing is like all sports programming rolled into one," Lasser said. "You have the pregame show to set up the event, the actual showing of the race, and the postrace. The National Handicapping Championship will be different from what I'm used to doing with live shows, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. The great thing is that it's an open book. We're going off the model of the poker shows, but with horse racing you can show a lot more action."

Lasser said taping will begin Thursday night at the opening cocktail party. On Friday, the first day of the tournament, the players will be spread throughout the race book and the cameramen will capture as much as they can for supporting footage. Gathering information for feature stories will be another goal.

"We'll be looking for characters," Lasser said. "In talking to people about why they watch poker, a lot has to do with having someone to cheer for and someone to cheer against."

"We're not trying to reinvent anything," Rotondo said. "The National Handicapping Championship has been going for six years, and we're just trying to capture what goes on. We're going to tell people to just be themselves."

On Saturday, the top 18 in the standings will be moved to the front of the room so that the cameras and producers can keep a closer eye on the top contenders. With frequent standings updates, the NTRA will also be able to keep an eye out for someone coming from the back of the pack.

The NHC usually reaches a fever pitch on Saturdays, during the mandatory races that everyone in the tournament must play. Lasser and Rotondo said those will be a main focus of the final version, just like the final table in poker.

Lasser said he's still experimenting with innovative ways to show the action. One idea he shared was a vision for the stretch run of a mandatory race with a superimposed shot of a contestant or two cheering for their horses (imagine a box on the screen like on picture-in-picture models). Lasser said he's coming up with a way to graphically designate which horses each contestant has picked so viewers can cheer along.

"It'll be even better and more exciting than showing the hole cards in poker," Lasser said.

The live taping will conclude with the awards banquet on Saturday night, though if the champion chooses to go to Beverly Hills for the Eclipse Awards on Monday, the cameras will make that trip as well.

Just as in the poker shows, the announcers - Randy Moss and Kenny Mayne, in this case - won't actually be at the event. They'll come in later and do voiceovers to describe the action. Mayne is expected to play the Norman Chad role, with Moss playing the straight man.

"Like we're going to tell the contestants, this can be a showcase for the sport," Rotondo said. "We want to make this show good and turn it into something big. We're hoping ESPN buys into it, and then we'd be able to do more throughout the year."