03/03/2006 12:00AM

Racing falls off Oscar's radar


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is difficult to find a racing angle to any of the movies up for Best Picture at Sunday's presentation of the Academy Awards. Neither Truman Capote nor Ed Murrow were exactly racetrack regulars, while both "Crash" and "Munich" deal with issues that seem a far cry from the world of "Guys and Dolls."

In fact, the only horses seen onscreen among the top five films were the highly tolerant, non-judgmental sheep-herding ponies ridden by Ennis and Jack in "Brokeback Mountain."

That's a steep Oscar drop from 2003, when "Seabiscuit" was among the finalists for Best Picture and nominated in six other categories, including adapted screenplay and cinematography. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, came along in 2004 with the deliriously dumb "Racing Stripes," then in 2005 issued the conventional, family-pitched "Dreamer," complete with Breeders' Cup product placement and a Shirley Temple wannabe.

Fear not, though, because there are racing projects in the pipe, apparently led by "Ruffian," from the original entertainment division of ESPN.

"Ruffian" is being billed as a "horse racing drama," which is probably a good way to go, since compounded, comminuted leg fractures rarely get big laughs outside the ghoulish fare at a TromaDance Film Festival. Sam Shepard has been cast as Ruffian's Hall of Fame trainer, Frank Whiteley, also a good thing, as long as he sticks close to the work he did in "The Right Stuff," "The Pledge," "Paris, Texas," and "Thunderheart."

Shepard is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright as well, only he didn't win it for penning "Simpatico," Shepard's horse racing tale that mutated into a well-heeled theatrical release in 1999, starring Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, and Sharon Stone.

"Since Shepard is a good playwright, we're left with two possibilities," wrote film critic Roger Ebert in his "Simpatico" review. "(1) It has been awkwardly adapted, or (2) it should have stayed in Shepard's desk drawer."

Whichever, whatever. Let's just say the sight of Stone in bedtime loungewear gunning down the fictional stallion of the title in an operatic fit of "nyah-nyah-nyah" revenge has yet to find a place among the great moments in racing-related cinema. Bob Goldthwait's horse poop jokes in "Hot to Trot" were more richly satisfying.

ESPN, the new home of the Breeders' Cup on television, seems to be on the muscle for feature film ideas through its ESPN Original Entertainment wing. It already has done TV movies about Dale Earnhardt and Paul "Bear" Bryant, as well as theatrical releases telling the stories of basketball player Sebastian Telfair and the 1970 New York Cosmos also on their play list.

With "Ruffian" in the works, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of other racing-related ideas making the development rounds. These are just rumors, but they are said to include:

"I Got You, Babe" - The lovable talking porker, last seen in "Babe: Pig in the City," wanders into Rick Dutrow's shed row and immediately begins to stir up trouble. Dutrow at first thinks sweet little Babe is an FBI plant, but before long the pig charms his way into Dutrow's heart and gives the horses running in the big race a plucky pep talk, after which he is tossed into a pile of lettuce and tomatoes.

"Mayne Street" - An old-fashioned musical about an itinerant band of culturally diverse horseplayers, set at a variety of racetracks from Emerald Downs to Tampa Bay, starring ESPN's sportscaster and uber-personality Kenny Mayne, who tells jokes, sings, and dances (at gunpoint).

"NYRA Blue" - David Milch has tossed out the idea of this weekly drama focusing on the lives and loves of the men and women charged with the operation and protection of the world's most important racetrack organization, with Dennis Franz tabbed to fill the role of Charlie "Sipowicz" Hayward, and Jimmy Smits as the hard-hitting New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer. Early script sessions have become difficult, however, for writers rattling off "Spitzer, Smits and Sipowicz" without first emptying their mouths of all liquid.

"Ruffian," which is the real thing, will be a challenge, since the story has a built-in bad ending and the star will be difficult to duplicate, no matter what kind of fancy camera angles are used. (Note to producers: The horse coming closest to resembling Ruffian in the last few years was probably Rock Hard Ten.)

Bill Nack, the former Sports Illustrated writer who covered Ruffian during his stint with Newsday, has been serving as a consultant on "Ruffian." Nack even has been written into the story, as a firsthand observer, and will be played by Frank Whaley, best known for being a very bad shot in "Pulp Fiction." Nack had been holding out for Brad Pitt.

"I think it will be a kick," Nack said. "I'll be meeting Whaley for the first time next week. All I asked of them was please don't have me doing or saying anything out of character. And the same with Whiteley. Do that and everything will be fine, because it's a good story, even though it ends tragically."

So wish the "Ruffian" folks good luck, because any green-lighted horse racing feature these days deserves the benefit of the doubt, even if it does go straight to cable. Hopefully "Seabiscuit" set the quality bar high enough to inspire the "Ruffian" filmmakers.