10/16/2009 12:00AM

Now for something completely different


ARCADIA, Calif. - Any racing fan who waded through the recently aired 12 hours of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" by documentarian Ken Burns could not help but think of the grand "parks" that have made horse racing so much more than just a roll of dice. Belmont Park, Hialeah Park, Arlington Park, Santa Anita Park - those also were very good ideas that served their citizens well.

Now comes another mini-series to occupy the coming week, commencing Sunday night on cable's IFC. "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut)" celebrates 40 years of industrial-strength humor that ranges in sophistication and content from being slapped by a fish while dancing, to extolling the virtues of Spam in song, to the play-by-play of a soccer match between teams made up of Greek and German philosophers (the Greeks won, 1-0, on a fine crossing shot from Socrates after a deft pass from Heraclitus).

It's times like these that require some form of escape. How else do you explain the sudden, steady stream of vampire movies? In the 1930s there were lavish musicals and screwball comedies to distract from economic depression. The vapid '70s and greedy '80s gave birth to theme park movies full of special effects. I am not sure what need Adam Sandler's work has answered, but things must be grim if they answer anything at all.

The Pythons, spanning the decades, became accomplished comic professionals in the semi-straight-faced presentation of man's most absurd behaviors. They stripped away institutional ego until all that was left was the sight of a tightly wrapped bureaucrat demonstrating the finer points of his silly walk, an Olympic-style competition for inbred upper-class twits, or a customer trying in vain to get his money's worth after paying for a robust argument.

Monty Python also did racing. Horses and racing, to be sure, as befit their very British backgrounds. Whether or not any of the following makes it to the documentary unfolding this week, rest assured they can be found somewhere with the click of a mouse. Unless you have a mouse problem (Episode 2, Oct. 12, 1969).

The Pantomime Horses (Episode 30, aired by the BBC on Nov. 9, 1972) featured no horse racing as such, but it did introduce those sympathetic characters Champion and Trigger - better known as four guys in two horse suits. They were called on the carpet, and one of them had to be fired. Their department head was sympathetic, but firm.

"Now you may think that this is very harsh behaviour but let me tell you that our management consultants actually queried the necessity for us to employ a pantomime horse at all. And so the decision has to be made which one of you is to go. Champion . . . how many years have you been with this firm? (Champion stamps his foot three times) Trigger? (Trigger stamps his front foot twice and rear foot once).

"I see. Well, it's a difficult decision. But in accordance with our traditional principles of free enterprise and healthy competition I'm going to ask the two of you to fight to the death for it."

It must be remembered that the Epsom Furniture Race (Episode 20, Nov. 10, 1970) actually begins with Lords Cricket Grounds sketch, where, according to the commentator, "So far today we've had five hours batting from England, and already they're naught for naught." The opponent is Iceland.

Things begin to go south when English batsman Cowdrey is taken off and replaced by a green Chesterfield, which prompted the Iceland side to put on their spin dryer to bowl to a table, who was out when the ball hit leg before wicket. At this point an announcer interrupts to go over to Epsom for the three o'clock, where a collection of familiar household items is racing down a grassy straight to a call that would do Trevor Denman proud.

"With fifty yards of this mile and a half race to go and it's the wash basin in the lead from WC Pedestal. Tucked in nicely there is the sofa going very well with Joanna Southcott's box making a good run from hat stand on the rails, and the standard lamp is failing fast but it's wash basin definitely taking up the running now . . ."

It should be noted that the sketch called Dennis Moore (Episode 37, Jan. 4, 1973) is not about Hollywood Park's veteran track superintendent of the same name, but of a legendary highwayman who robs the rich of their colorful lupins and gives them to the ungrateful poor. At one point, a flower-draped peasant begs Moore to "go out and steal something useful," but the real star of the sketch is Dennis Moore's grand steed Concord, who keeps a straight face throughout.

No blow is too low, and so there is the Jockey Interviews (Episode 43, Nov. 21, 1974). Of the jockeys, only the tops of their helmets are seen at the bottom of the screen as they mumble their answers to the towering reporter. He offers one of them a box. It doesn't help.

Then it's straightaway to the Queen Victoria Handicap, and it is a thriller, with none of the special effects used in the movie "Seabiscuit." I'm not one to spoil things by revealing a result. Let's just say it is inspiring to see eight guys dressed in black gowns trimmed in white lace breaking from a starting gate, sprinting around a turn, and jumping a tall hedge barrier. Look for it at next year's Breeders' Cup.