02/27/2004 1:00AM

Oscars: Locks and longshots


LAS VEGAS - February 29 is by definition a special date, hitting the calendar just once every four years, and this year's bonus day could at least in theory be an absolutely magical one for the children of all ages who embraced last year's two biggest feel-good stories in the world of Thoroughbred racing. If life were really a storybook, this February 29 would be the date on which the beloved Funny Cide returned to glory by winning the New Orleans Handicap, several hours before the equally beloved "Seabiscuit" won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of 2003.

Alas, 200-1 is still an underlay on that particular parlay. While Funny Cide is merely unlikely to win his first stakes race since the Preakness last May, a Best Picture victory by "Seabiscuit" Sunday night would be a bigger upset than Upset over Man o' War, Jim Dandy over Gallant Fox, or Arcangues over Bertrando.

Bookmakers in Las Vegas and on the Internet list "Seabiscuit" at anywhere from 25-1 to 100-1, and Entertainment Weekly's Oscars issue gives the movie a 4 percent chance of winning, but this is not the spot to go shopping for a price. "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is 1-10 here, a single in all your multiple wagers at Oscar pools and parties, a lead-pipe cinch. Not only was it the year's most popular movie, but there has also been a sort of unspoken agreement within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that everyone would wait until this final leg of the "Rings" trilogy to honor all three movies.

The only handicapping knock that anyone has put on its chances Sunday night is that no pure fantasy movie has ever won Best Picture before (a precedent that the harshest critics of "Seabiscuit" would argue applies to that film as well). This line of thinking should be familiar to horseplayers who are bombarded with similar factoids each spring on the road to Louisville, the ones that begin "No horse has ever won the Derby . . . " and then disqualify a Charismatic for running in maiden claimers, a Fusaichi Pegasus for lack of early seasoning, or a Funny Cide for being a New York-bred gelding.

But wouldn't a Best Picture for "Seabiscuit" be an appropriate reflection of the horse and the movie, a stirring and unlikely triumph by a poor little underdog? Didn't Seabiscuit himself, a malformed outcast transformed by the mystical powers of a hermit who lived in the wild, routinely achieve such miracles? Well, not really. Seabiscuit, a well-bred colt raised at Claiborne Farm and initially trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, was already a stakes-winner when he was purchased privately, and the unromantic truth is that he was the favorite in 28 of his last 41 starts, never a crazy longshot rallying from the clouds as Hollywood would have you believe.

All of which makes it somewhat ironic that the one category in which "Seabiscuit" is no worse than 2-1, with a 34 percent chance of victory in Entertainment Weekly's judgment, is for Best Adapted Screenplay. EW gives "Mystic River" the slimmest of edges in this division (with a 35 percent chance of winning), followed by "American Splendor" (15 percent), "The Return of the King" (14 percent), and "City of God" (2 percent).

That "Seabiscuit" got a Best Picture nomination at all was a Jim Dandy, as celluloid insiders had expected the fifth nomination to go to "Cold Mountain." The nod does have one benefit for racing: Every Best Picture nominee gets a 30-second clip shown during the Oscars telecast, watched by jillions of people worldwide. If Gary Stevens makes it into the excerpt, more people will see him playing George Woolf than ever watched him ride Winning Colors or Point Given.

That exposure can't hurt, but tracks can safely expect the usual turnout at the turnstiles Monday morning. Funny Cide and "Seabiscuit" were supposed to take the sport to new levels of popularity after last year, but instead the first quarter of 2004 has seen total wagering decline for the first time in a decade. The best thing about Feburary 29, 2004, for racing may be only that it adds an extra day of business to the accounting ledgers.

As for the rest of your Oscar bets and ballots, you can probably hit the pick six in the six major categories on a $16 ticket. You can safely single "Return of the King" for Best Picture, its Peter Jackson for Best Director, and Tim Robbins ("Mystic River") for Supporting Actor, then go two-deep in the other three races: Sean Penn ("Mystic River") and Bill Murray ("Lost in Translation") for Best Actor, Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Diane Keaton ("Something's Gotta Give") for Best Actress, and Renee Zellweger ("Cold Mountain") and Shohrah Agdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog") for Best Supporting Actress.

It's an easier game than the one we play every day.