03/19/2008 12:00AM

Once doomed, now at Graceland


And I thought the only good reason to watch the current version of "Dancing With the Stars" was the incomprehensible presence of Penn Jillette, one of the bad boys of the uber-magic duo Penn & Teller, whose monstrous bulk and bouncy black ponytail took the cha-cha to new depths last Monday night.

(Stephen Colbert noted on the next day's edition of "The Colbert Report" that it was Steve Guttenberg who caught his eye, adding, "I wonder which star he's dancing with.")

As it turns out, anyone with a heart for a horse - racehorse or otherwise - should be cheering this time around for the dancer with the most famous name in the house. Priscilla Presley, widow of you-know-who, is out there mixing it up with Jason Taylor of the Dolphins, Olympian skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and nine-time Grand Slam winner Monica Seles. At the age of 62, no less.

Of course, she married Elvis when she was, what, 4? And it was no surprise that Presley's introductory video package dwelt not so much on her work in the "Naked Gun" series of sophisticated comedies, but with her restoration of fabled Graceland, the American Versailles and Memphis home of the one and only King.

If Presley advances deep into the competition, she plans at some point to introduce the newest resident of Graceland to the DWTS international audience. His name is Max. He is 4 years old, and he was rescued from possible slaughter last July from the back lot of a tack shop in a town in Maine.

The tale began with an Internet blast that circulated among horse rescue activists about a herd of six in jeopardy at a farm. Carole-Terese Naser, who lived nearby, answered the call and followed the trail. She discovered not a herd, but an actual family that consisted of a pair of 2-year-olds, two 3-year-olds, their Quarter Horse sire, and a Standardbred mare who produced two of the four young ones.

"They had been sold, for $200 each," said Naser, an experienced rider who once boarded her horses at the New Hampshire farm of noted Thoroughbred owner Peter Fuller. "And I was pretty sure they would be headed to slaughter. It's only a drive of about five hours to the slaughterhouse across the border in Quebec."

With a flurry of activity, Naser put out the word that the family of six needed immediate intervention. They appeared to be in borderline starving condition, and they had begun to chew the bark off trees. Naser and her network secured the use of a foster home where the horses could be quarantined. They arranged transport. Then Naser followed the stock trailer loaded with the six horses to the tack shop lot, where she ended up paying $400 a head to save them from whatever was going to happen next. Let's just say they weren't cut out to be parade ponies.

"They were semi-feral horses," Naser said. "They couldn't even get a halter on them. It took them two hours to load the horses at the farm."

In order to support the newfound herd, until the time they could find new homes, Naser and others created a fund-raising T-shirt telling the story of the Saved Six. Some of the shirts were sent to celebrities for signatures, in hopes they could be auctioned. One of those shirts was returned, signed, by Priscilla Presley, along with the message that she wanted to help.

"Not just help," Naser said. "She wanted to adopt the whole family and move them to Graceland, where they've had horses forever. She told me how Elvis once bought a horse for everybody in the Graceland family, whether they wanted one or not. And she has been an accomplished rider for many years."

In the end, it was agreed that Presley would take two of the Saved Six to Graceland, with the timing based on their training. The shy, bay gelding Max came around quickly for Naser, and so, in mid-December, he began his journey to Tennessee, in a van decorated by Presley's people with banners that read "From Maine to Graceland."

A gala media event was planned to introduce Max to the public during the celebration of Elvis Presley's 73rd birthday, Jan. 8. Unfortunately, he didn't make it there until Jan. 10. Along the way, Max developed heat in a hoof, and rather than risk full-blown laminitis, Naser and her traveling crew spent a week in Virginia until he could travel safely again.

Max missed the party, but there were still Christmas decorations in the barn and his nameplate was already mounted at his stall. Presley has allowed the story of Max and his rescued family to use the Graceland name for heightened awareness, and now, if she gets enough votes on the "Dancing With the Stars" website, Presley will do what she can to spread the word even more. She certainly did her part on Tuesday night, finishing second in the judging.

As for Naser, she confesses to not being a crazed Elvis fan in her youth, even though her father was always singing something about a "hound dog."

"But I am a huge Priscilla fan," Naser said. "Going from where he was, and what could have happened to him, and then ending up under Priscilla Presley's care and living at Graceland, I'd say Max has won the Kentucky Derby of rescue horses."