01/07/2009 12:00AM

Reality TV casts an eye on racing

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Okay, so it's not "Masterpiece Theatre," or even "Knight Rider." As mainstream entertainment goes, the Bravo series called "The Real Housewives of Orange County" ranks somewhere between stopping to gawk at a grisly freeway accident and a nature show featuring large, hungry animals devouring smaller, slower animals. It gives your everyday desperate housewives a bad name.

But hey, this week's episode was downright Emmy-worthy, since those real-life housewives - Jeana, Tamra, Vicki, Lynn, and Gretchen - and their husbands (Happy, Dopey, Doc, Moe, and Curly Joe) went on a field trip to Del Mar. Opening day, no less, shot last summer, preserved digitally, and unwrapped to warm our hearts during these cold winter months.

The entire enterprise can be trivialized, of course. Reality TV is beneath the dignity of the millions upon millions of viewers who watch at least one of the shows from time to time. Del Mar rolled the dice last year when "The Bachelor" washed up at the track one afternoon and did no harm (at least no bachelors were injured during the filming). So why not welcome the wives? They couldn't do anything worse than what the boys from "Entourage" produced when they blew through town.

In fact, the entire RHOC experience could be interpreted as a broad, bitter metaphor for the plight of the Thoroughbred industry. There are power plays among tight cliques waged through whisper campaigns and seating arrangements. Already attractive creatures are chemically and surgically enhanced far beyond nature's intent. Long-suffering patrons (Moe and Curly Joe) foot a neverending bill for extravagance and despair.

"The Del Mar racetrack is such a special place," said Jeana in voiceover, as they emerged from a stretch limo at the clubhouse gates. "It's a place for happy horses."

This was, of course, before she had seen a horse. But that's nitpicking. And if the Del Mar marketing people were listening, there you go

. . . this season's catchphrase on a platter.

There was no plot, just a lightly scripted day in the life of these fascinating people, some of whom got the heels of their Manolo Blahniks gummed up by the Polytrack pathway leading to the rail.

"Horses are so beautiful - no body fat," observed Vicki.

"What if we just bet on all of them?" wondered Tamra. "We're bound to win that way, right?"

Flirty, ostracized Gretchen provided the lone moment of honest charm while she was watching a race. In the midst of her excited squeals she beseeched, "Don't hurt yourself!" Her collagen to God's ears.

"Jockeys," if the pre-debut hype is accurate, will be all about getting hurt. Shot at Santa Anita, the series runs on Animal Planet, which is probably why it is described in media materials as "The most dangerous two minutes in sport for man . . . and beast." The first episode is scheduled for Feb. 6.

The cast of seven plucked from the West Coast colony includes Mike Smith, Alex Solis, Jon Court, Kayla Stra, Chantal Sutherland, Joe Talamo, and Aaron Gryder. They have been given sly nicknames like The Icon, The New Girl, The Statesman, The Female Star, and The Comeback Kid. Teenager Talamo does not have a nickname. Apparently, the essence of Talamo is impossible to distill into a simple hook. Gryder, 37 and a father of three, is The Family Man.

The Family Man was reached late Wednesday morning having lunch with his son Christian and daughter Grace at their grade school. Talk about typecasting. Gryder was asked if there is any chance at all that "Jockeys" will offer a reasonably accurate portrayal of either the sport or his profession.

"What impressed me is that at no time did they ever come to me and say 'do this' or 'say that,' " Gryder said. "Sometimes you didn't even realize there were cameras on you. A lot of the people working on it were racing fans, and the ones who weren't became fans after seeing what goes on from the inside. And not from just a jockey's perspective, but also a trainer's, and everything that goes into caring for a horse and getting them fit."

The bar is not high when it comes to the depiction of a jockey in a mainstream film or television. Kristy McNichol did her best to wreak havoc upon both Ernest Hemingway and race riding in the 1979 TV movie version of "My Old Man." By comparison, Bobcat Goldthwait's interpretation of a jockey in "Hot to Trot" was downright Shakespearean. Gryder himself has been there before, with a bit part and a line in a shady racetrack episode of "The Sopranos." He remembers the process more than the end product.

"The first reading of the script was in a full room of Sopranos, all sitting around a big table," Gryder recalled. "I was sitting next to Uncle Junior."

It is one thing to foment false conflict during ladies lunch in Laguna Beach. Horse racing, on the other hand, needs very little tweaking. Just keep the cameras rolling, and Corey Nakatani will go down on opening day at the Oak Tree meet and fracture a collarbone. "Jockeys" got that, but then filming wrapped before Gryder broke his nose in a tumble at Hollywood Park in December, then had to have it reset a week later. He was not a pretty sight.

"They were very disappointed," Gryder said, only half kidding. "I told them they finished too early. A couple days after they rebroke my nose, Garrett Gomez got three teeth knocked out. That's what they want to see."

That's show biz.