11/09/2001 12:00AM

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The hard-working folks at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association have been busy massaging that 1.7 Breeders' Cup TV rating and its five share, and that's fine, because that is their job. Among the many mandates of the NTRA (ad campaigns, merchandising, Austro-American relations), certainly the exposure of horse racing on all forms of television should rank first and foremost.

It is amazing, though, how a few strokes of pen and ink on glossy white paper can trump five uphill hours of huffing and puffing on a cold Long Island afternoon. The Breeders' Cup telecast had some fine moments. And, like all electronic images, those moments evaporate as soon as they are received. But for those of us who remain glued to the world of touch, and thrill to the turn of a page, there is nothing more significant, more life-affirming, than an appearance by horse racing in a New Yorker cartoon.

Horse racing has made more than its share of cameos in mainstream cartoon panels. The name of Karen Rogers, who rode with some success in New York a decade ago, once popped out of Lucy's mouth in a daily dose of Peanuts, by Charles Schulz. Editorial cartoonist Brian Duffy, in a 1995 take on the spread of gambling, drew a W.C. Fields-like character leering at a parimutuel window and offering, in successive panels, "Place your bets here. Cash in your chips here. Get your lottery tickets here. Get you gambling addiction counseling here."

Then there was the contribution of Joe Martin, in his droll "Mister Boffo," many times so sarcastic it drips off the page. In 1989, he drew a single, long panel depicting two horses in adjacent stalls, oblivious to a stable hand shoveling muck, deep in weary conversation. The horse on the left is doing the talking:

"So this clown's whipping me . . . like I just got here from Mars! . . . You don't go off at eight to five without knowing where the finish line is."

He has a point.

The racing world was not spared a walk on "The Far Side" with Gary Larsen, the guy who gave us the deer with the bulls-eye - "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal" - along with a cavalcade of weird little bug-eyed kids. Leave it to Larsen to zero in on racing's most inexplicable embarrassment: the euthanasia of its athletes.

Doreen, a Larsen favorite, is studying a heavy text beneath a reading light. She has turned to Chapter 9, titled "Equine Medicine," with one column labeled "Diagnosis" and a matching column labeled "Treatment." There are two pages worth of horse maladies, all with the same cure:

"Broken leg......shoot."

"Fever......shoot."

"Open sores......shoot."

"Closed sores......shoot."

"Bad breath......shoot."

The caption reads: "Like most veterinary students, Doreen breezes through Chapter 9."

Okay, so sometimes they twist the knife. But that's the job of the cartoonist, to hold up reality and let it reflect in the fun-house mirror. Sometimes the laughter is hollow, and the truth leaves a bitter taste. Welcome to the real world.

Jack Ziegler has been a regular in the pages of The New Yorker for nearly 28 years. His cartoons have been gathered in book form under such titles as "Filthy Little Things," "Marital Blitz," and "Worst Case Scenarios." His characters are walking wounded, urban stressed, out to lunch, and always funny.

The Nov. 12 issue of The New Yorker is the magazine's annual cartoon edition. In this household, The New Yorker cartoon edition is more hotly anticipated than the S.I. swimsuit issue. But then, this is a very odd household.

Ziegler's work appears in the section called, "The Way We Laugh Now" - "now" being after the events of Sept. 11. "With every passing day," begins his panel, "our grasp of the issue deepens . . ." There, on the streets of the city, well-dressed people in groups of two and three spout dialog balloons filled with the current vernacular: "Afghanistan is the same as all those other 'stan' countries. But it's got a whole different style."

"Wasn't there a Northern Alliance in the first 'Star Wars' movie?"

"Jalalabad. I really enjoy saying Jalalabad."

"Al Qaeda is spelled without a 'u.' What's up with that?"

"Anthrax! Amtrak! Am Ex! Fed Ex! Feedback! Fondue! My circuits are overloading!!"

And finally: "Kandahar! Didn't he run in the Breeders' Cup?"

Racing makes a New Yorker punch line. Page 96. Circle the date.