11/26/2002 12:00AM

Smells like racing, bust and boom

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Turkey, being a natural source for the amino acid tryptophan, can trigger the production of seratonin in the human brain, thereby inducing relaxation and sleep. This makes turkey the perfect racetrack food.

Racing fans need to be lulled into a state of semi-consciousness these days, or else they may end up running from the game as fast as they can. Thanksgiving? Thanks for nothing. That's how fans should feel this holiday week, when all around them the keepers of the sport are letting them down with increasing regularity.

The list of transgressions has been thoroughly documented in these pages. Small fields, empty grandstands, disheartening price drops, a pick six scandal, ongoing arguments over drug testing. If this keeps up, horse racing will end up with an uglier public face than the Olympic Games.

And yet there are those of us who continue to believe that the trough is half full. Occasional signs of hope and promise still flicker in the dark winter sky. For these things, loyal racing fans can be amazed, and thankful.

For instance, the stands were full at Santa Anita Park on a breezy Tuesday morning this week. It was an odd sight, since the sport is being presented across town at Hollywood Park right now. And these particular customers were strangely silent, as if collectively broken-hearted by a busted tri. Turkey overdose, perhaps? No, they were windblown mannequins, assembled as backdrop for scenes from the movie production of "Seabiscuit," which is currently in full swing.

Be very thankful for this. Mervin Muniz, an irreplaceable component, is still at the wheel of the Fair Grounds racing program, which opens on Thursday with a full house and the traditional Thanksgiving Handicap. There was a chance Muniz, the director of racing, could have missed it, after undergoing surgery last June to remove part of his colon. Malignancies were discovered, and now he has been through 12 sessions of chemotherapy, with more to come.

"So far the blood reports have been good," Muniz said earlier this week. "Not to brag - and knock on wood - but I've gone through the chemo without any real complications. Sometimes you get nausea. But I'm always hungry. After my session last week, I got to the track and had me a big ol' shrimp po'boy."

On the national level, fans should be thankful for the news that Rudy Giuliani's consulting firm will take a whack at racing's image, with the goal of restoring confidence in a tote system that was apparently built by the lowest bidder. Giuliani's current reputation is based on his leadership as mayor of New York in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. However, his challenge with the racing account will be more comparable to his sterilization of 42nd Street, since the pick six has suddenly turned into a sleazy, computer-warped peep show.

The pick six scam gave racing all the wrong kind of headlines. But there is an upside for which to be thankful.

When news moves from the pages of The New York Times to an ad-libbed wisecrack from David Letterman, things aren't all bad. Letterman introduced a recent segment of his absurd "Is This Anything?" bit on "The Late Show" by observing that the best thing about it was the wagering, and that "those guys in jail for the big Breeders' Cup pick six dealie - they're betting on it."

That's not all. Indiscriminate use of the remote control landed on last week's episode of the NBC sitcom "In-Laws," just in time for a scene that took place at either a deserted racetrack or the cleanest OTB parlor in the five boroughs. The character played by familiar tough guy Dennis Farina was in a panic, desperate to buy a cap with a "Go Baby Go" logo because it was lucky. Talk about product placement.

"In-Laws" ranked 64th in last week's national Nielsen ratings. Racing could do better. And it did. "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" is as good as TV gets, and Nielsen's top-rated show to boot. In last week's episode, the forensic evidence in a murder (broken spur, dung beetle carcass) led investigators to a ranch outside Las Vegas. As Det. Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) walked past a corral, he wondered aloud, "Where's the tote board?" Then he took a deep breath and said: "Smells like Belmont Park, doesn't it?"

It was a small moment, but significant. Horse racing will survive, and thrive, but only if it can insinuate itself in the mundane and become second nature once again. Spectacle is nice. But true fans are built from within.

So be thankful that once the bets are down and the tickets are properly cashed, the game will always appeal to the senses, whether it is the smell of Belmont Park, the sight of a horse on the engine, or the smell of a big ol' turkey po'boy.