01/06/2005 12:00AM

New show getting a dose of racing


ARCADIA, Calif. - The marketing geniuses in horse racing have been harping for years about the need to plug the game into contemporary culture. Schemes to lure the youth of America have ranged from fraternity and sorority promotions to visions of the "edgy" actress Lori Petty draped on Santa Anita's statue of Seabiscuit, filming an National Thoroughbred Racing Association commercial.

Then, from out of nowhere, the ultimate in pop culture was dropped into racing's lap, free of charge. Beginning this Monday night, horse racing will become a part of the single most influential phenomenon in modern entertainment programming. So buckle up, racing fans, get ready for the ride. And always remember to be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

Reality TV.

"American Dream Derby" makes its debut the evening of Jan. 10 on the Game Show Network, a cable/satellite channel that is available in about 56 million homes. GSN is where those so inclined can relive the thrills of "The Match Game" from the 1970's or "Family Feud" (the Richard Dawson years).

Of course, these venerated programs barely raise a pulse compared to "Survivor" or "Fear Factor." The intellectual challenges of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" have been replaced by projectile vomiting, abject humiliation, and the prospect of one Gotti stabbing another on camera.

Since reality shows require reality to be heavily scripted, it will be interesting to see how "American Dream Derby" tweaks the concept with horse racing. All of the familiar elements are in place - the Rainbow Coalition cast, the goofy stunts, the cruel teaming and bitter scheming - while behind the fake reality are very real Thoroughbreds, as well as two well-known trainers.

Ron Ellis did a stint as on-air analyst for the short-lived series of major stakes races presented by Fox TV. For now, he is better known as the guy who trains Eclipse Award finalist Declan's Moon, which occupies most of his time, although he confesses to catching occasional glimpses of "The Apprentice" while his wife and daughter watch.

"Anything on after 9 o'clock is usually past my bedtime," Ellis said.

Ellis was approached last May by the show's producers to act as a consultant for "American Dream Derby." He was asked to compile a stable of 15 horses who would serve as key players in show's concept. Shopping on a budget, Ellis cobbled together a string from sources in northern and Southern California, trying to make them as competitively matched as possible, and began training them at Santa Anita. Each show ends with a two-horse race that determines the elimination of a contestant.

"These were people used to seeing people eat bugs, or whatever, and they were really getting into the excitement of watching horses race," Ellis said of the Dream Derby crew. "For them it was something new."

Brand-new, apparently, to just about everyone associated with the show. Executive producer Steve Stone was an occasional racegoer who was pretty sure which end of the horse did the eating, but not much more.

"I was surprised how little I knew about horses," Stone said. "And while it's fair to say the contestants are the main focus of the show, as we get down to fewer and fewer contestants, the horses will take on more of a role as personalities."

Alex Hassinger, currently assistant to Eoin Harty and formerly trainer of champions Anees and Eliza, answered a casting call for the on-camera part as "trainer" and got the job. Ellis, on board from the start, pretended to be crushed.

"I figured they had to pick me," Ellis said. "Then I was told I wasn't what they were looking for. When I told that to one of the contestants - she's the model - her reaction was, 'Are you kidding me?' "

Hassinger had three days to prepare for the role.

"I was playing Alex Hassinger," Hassinger said. "They wanted me to elevate the temperature a little bit to show it wasn't a cakewalk to work in a stable. I had a lot of bosses who had to yell at me, so I probably took a little bit from all of them. It was kind of fun - I got to act like a trainer, but without the pressure."

Any concerns that the horses are being used as carnival clowns was dispelled by a preview of the first episode.

"The horses were used in a very straightforward manner," said Ian Valentine, GSN's senior vice-president of programming. "It's not as if we had two of them get in a fight, fall down, and then hold still while we applied makeup. They were asked to do what horses do. They've been happily living their $100-a-day lives. As it turns out, they are cheaper to take care of than than the humans."

Once the American Dream Derby has ended - with a live race from Santa Anita on Feb. 21 - there are arrangements for the horses to be sold as racehorses in training.

"We have made it very clear that they will all be taken care of after the show, and sent to the right homes," said producer Stone.

That leaves the final verdict up to viewers, and the ratings. Hassinger, for one, thinks horse racing will come home a winner.

"Most of these reality shows are people competing against each other," Hassinger said. "Here, you've got to rely on a horse getting the job done for you, just like at the racetrack, where we rely on the horse every day. That's what I call reality."