01/22/2004 1:00AM

Racing needs must-see-TV


LAS VEGAS - There's obviously no accounting for taste on television these days, since shows where people eat worms are consistent ratings-grabbers. Even so, did it seem much more palatable a couple of years ago that millions of Americans would gather round the screen each week to watch people play poker?

Televised poker tournaments are suddenly hotter than those worms. The World Poker Tour is the highest-rated show on The Travel Channel, with at least 800,000 viewers per episode. Repeated showings of Binion's World Series of Poker on ESPN have astounded programmers there because each rerun seems to draw even higher ratings. Bravo has gotten into the act with a dumbed-down and star-driven version called "Celebrity Poker," and now NBC is counterprogramming the Super Bowl pre-game festivities with its own poker show.

There are at least a dozen hours a week of poker on television, and the viewership for all this programming exceeds that of TVG and the rest of horse racing programming combined. It is fueling an explosion in the poker industry. At any hour of the day or night, tens of thousands of civilians are sitting at their home computers playing the game online for real money. Poker rooms here in Las Vegas are fuller than ever, with rookies living a sort of fantasy-camp experience by pulling up a chair and sitting down at The Mirage or Bellagio with the delighted regulars.

What, if anything, is in it for racing?

The question seems particularly apropos this weekend, as the fifth annual National Handicapping Championship, sponsored by Daily Racing Form and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, draws to a close Saturday night. The NHC was founded as a way to make horseplayers the focus of a racing event and to crown a handicapper of the year who could be honored at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies. The event has grown nicely in scope, with more than 50,000 individual tournament entries during the year vying for the 260 finalist spots in Las Vegas each January.

The problem with the NHC getting to that next level of "Celebrity Poker" proportions is that no one has quite figured out how to make betting on races a spectator sport. The same could have been said of poker a couple of years ago. Who would want to watch a bunch of grumpy hustlers silently play cards, tossing chips into a pot and, for the most part, folding their hands after either victory or defeat? Then came the masterstroke idea of using hidden cameras to reveal each player's down cards in Texas Hold'em, drawing the audience into the secret. Now every viewer is an omniscient observer, knowing more than the players do as they're playing, and can effectively play everyone's hand, second-guess the players, and practically feel the felt beneath his fingers.

Racing needs a similar "Eureka!" idea because there's no easy equivalent for the hidden camera when it comes to playing horses. What passes for handicapping analysis on most racing broadcasts is as uninteresting as it is uninformative. "I like the six-horse because he's consistent and he has a good trainer and jockey" doesn't stand a chance against worms or a $20,000 bluff from a weasel with a pair of pocket deuces.

It's a shame, because handicapping a horse race is inherently so much more interesting and challenging than playing two random cards dealt from a deck that it makes even world-class poker look like tic-tac-toe by comparison. Thoughtful horseplayers process hundreds of bits of information, unconsciously summon thousands of memories, construct and dissect multiple scenarios, and top it all off with instinctive and sometimes emotional impulses. There has to be a way to depict and communicate this and show the rest of the world why this truly is the best game ever invented.

Poker and horse racing have more in common than usually being in the same area of a casino. They are the only two games where players compete with one another rather than the house. People get lucky or unlucky in the short term, but in the long run the good players win at the expense of the bad ones. That's a basis for interesting and watchable competition in a way that watching nitwits roll dice or fill out lottery tickets isn't.

Given the massive brainpower out there playing this game, here's hoping there's a horseplayer who will soon come up with the big idea like poker's hidden camera. Even if you can't patent your notion, it still might be in your selfish interest to have a "World Horseplayer Tour" and "Celebrity Horseplay!" on television in a year or two. Those regulars in the poker rooms here are not exactly complaining about the new generation of poker players pulling up a chair at their games. They have never been more wide awake but they're counting a lot of sheep these days.