07/23/2001 11:00PM

Not over till the small men sing

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The National Thoroughbred Racing Association will unveil its newest television commercials on Saturday exclusively on the all-sports network ESPN and its family of channels.

For the first time since the NTRA began airing commercials in 1998, the ads will feature athletes connected to the sport. Jockeys Jorge Chavez, Aaron Gryder, and Joe Bravo will join ESPN host Kenny Mayne, an avid racing fan, in three of the four commercials. Former rider Angel Cordero Jr. will make a cameo appearance in one of the commercials, as will running back Michael Bennett of the Minnesota Vikings.

The 30-second spots are tied to major races televised by ESPN and ESPN2 this summer and fall, leading up to the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 27. A five-second tag at the end of the commercials will feature a voice-over by ESPN's Jim Kelly plugging each upcoming televised race.

In all, the commercials will be shown 600 times during the next three months.

Keith Chamblin, NTRA's vice president of marketing, said the target audience is males 18-49 and ESPN is the ideal place to reach that demographic.

"We are really going after the 19 million light users who, say, go to the races once or twice a year," Chamblin said. "There's another 10 million lapsed users, who used to go to the track but don't anymore. Then we have over 3 million core racing fans. We have a whole packet of fans residing at ESPN.

"I think our target audience will really like the commercials," he added.

The commercials, shot in a New York City studio, are described by Chamblin as fun and irreverent and similar to the offbeat ads for ESPN's SportsCenter. The NTRA spots were produced by BaylessCronin, an Atlanta-based advertising agency and a sister agency to Merkley Newman Harty, which produced NTRA's commercials the last three years. BaylessCronin also created the SportsCenter ads.

Three of the commercials will be seen only on ESPN and its family of channels and feature Mayne and the jockeys. The fourth, specifically promoting the Breeders' Cup and for use by NTRA member tracks, features Chavez, Gryder, and Bravo.

In the commercials, Mayne, on horseback in racing silks, croons country tunes, such as "Back in the Saddle Again," reminiscent of country-western movies featuring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Chavez, Bravo, and Gryder sing the chorus, while scenes from racing, country-western movies, and sites such as Mt. Rushmore flash in the background.

This is the fourth round of NTRA commercials. The first two years, NTRA used actress Lori Petty and then actor Rip Torn in its ads, which were widely panned by racing insiders as failing to get across a message. Last year a more upbeat and direct approach was taken, with popular music and energetic fans rooting home their wagering selections.