05/20/2003 11:00PM

Put post time in prime time

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's time to give Funny Cide a week off. Let him tear down the barn and pull Raunie and Zacarias around the shed row, while Barclay and Robin and Jose take their well-deserved bows all over town. Belmont week will arrive soon enough, and the Triple Crown simmer will go to full boil. For now, it is enough to know that there is a Funny Cide, healthy and in good hands, leading the game like no blue-collar hero since the days of John Henry and his bicycle salesman owner.

Besides, there are other celebrities to pick up the slack as the holiday weekend commences. Every time Congaree runs is a special occasion, and he is aiming for the Metropolitan Mile on Monday at Belmont Park, while out West racing's two brightest female stars will be on display.

Azeri runs on Saturday in the Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. She won the race last year, when she was just plain old Azeri. This time around she is the reigning Horse of the Year, 1 for 1 already this season and training in top form for her Hollywood assignment.

Hollywood Park management is hyping its Monday, May 26, program with a beach towel giveaway, a $1 million guaranteed pick six pool and three significant stakes events. Azeri will get a line in some print advertising, but beyond that there will be no special promotion of her appearance. Did someone mention she was Horse of the Year?

"Azeri is certainly a draw," said Allen Gutterman, Hollywood's vice-president of marketing. "But I've been burned in the past, which is why we say Azeri is 'scheduled to appear.' Anyway, for this weekend, most of our budget targeted the Monday program, which could turn out to be a pretty good day."

It can be argued that any day is a good day when you have the Horse of the Year on the card, especially one as charismatic as Azeri. At least, there will be a chance for her race to be seen at home on local commercial cable (Fox Sports Network2), which airs a two-hour segment of Television Games Network's regular national programming from 3 to 5 p.m. But only a chance.

"The Milady will either be the third, fourth or eighth, depending on how many enter," said Martin Panza, Hollywood's racing secretary. "If it is a four-horse field, it will definitely not be the eighth."

And if it is the eighth, the Milady would miss the Fox Sports telecast, since the fourth race goes at about 2:50 p.m.

The culprit is the pick six, which commences with the fifth race and runs through the 10th on a Hollywood Saturday card. Panza, like all racing secretaries, is under pressure to protect his pick six from short fields with standout singles. His job is not to worry about presenting the Horse of the Year to a live television audience.

The management of Los Alamitos Race Course, located just down the freeway from Hollywood Park, is faced with a similar choice. On Friday night, world champion racing mule Black Ruby will make her first appearance of the season in a match race against her longtime nemesis, Taz, in a 300-yard dash for a $10,000 purse.

Posters have been plastered all over the track touting the latest Mule Duel, with a partial profile of Black Ruby described as having "the most famous ears since Bugs Bunny." Just as there was last September when the two mules squared off at Fairplex Park, there will be betting offered on the match.

"I think we've all seen the rivalry there," said Jeff True, Los Alamitos general manager. "It's not a sideshow. It's a bettable event."

It will not, however, be part of the nightly Fox Sports Network2 cable broadcast, which runs from 8 to 9 p.m. The Black Ruby-Taz showdown will be race seven, at about 10 o'clock, setting it apart from the $25,000 guaranteed pick four on races 1 through 4. Instead, there will be 350-yard mule race with a field of 10 going as the fourth at approximately 8:40 p.m.

"The Fox telecast is good stuff," True said. "But if we're offering wagering on these races, then it's got to override TV until the TV gets to the point that it's driving handle. I'm not sure the Fox show is going to drive enough handle to make the match race overcome a full field. In fact, I know it won't."

In trying to nurture an audience for mule racing, and thus expand its bettable product line, Los Alamitos is breaking new ground. It is unfortunate that there is no cable television window available for the proven entertainment value provided by Black Ruby and Taz. Still, a full field of experienced yet unpredictable mules, rated just a cut below the two stars, could generate fan interest. That, after all, is the point of the exercise.

On the other hand, the management of major Thoroughbred track like Hollywood Park should be able to look past merely squeezing the last dollar out of a pick six pool. A horse like Azeri should be on commercial television, no matter what the circumstances . . . unless, perhaps, we have been misinformed, and the televised exposure of Thoroughbred racing's greatest stars is not that important after all.