12/06/2001 1:00AM

They dance, prance, curtsy, and sidestep. They are 'Cheval.'


Las Vegas is a great place for horseplayers. Its race books have had full-card simulcasting of all tracks from coast to coast longer than anywhere else has, and the amenities can't be matched by any track in the country: free parking, free admission, free or reduced-priced Daily Racing Forms, not to mention free drinks. It's a horseplayers' paradise.

However, for true horse lovers, there is one problem: The closest we get to the animals we admire is a television screen.

About the only place you can see horses performing live during the year is the "Tournament of Kings" show at the Excalibur. The show costs $44.66 and includes a chicken dinner that you eat with your hands. It's a fun time, but geared primarily toward kids. Besides, the kings are the headliners, as they joust on horseback. The horses are just the vehicle the kings parade in on.

At this time of year, the National Finals Rodeo takes place at the Thomas & Mack Center. It began Thursday and runs through Dec. 16. Here horses are elevated to a co-starring role. The most attention is given to the competing cowboys and the bulls, but horses take center stage in the barrel racing, bareback riding, and saddle broncs competitions, and play supporting roles in the calf roping and other events. Tickets are $31, though many of the events were sold out as of Thursday morning. It's a great place to get to see horses perform live.

But none of that compares to how the horse is celebrated at the newest show on the Las Vegas Strip, "Cheval." The show runs through Jan. 6 under the big top on Harmon Avenue between the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo (the website is chevaltheatre.com).

"Cheval," the French word for horse, is made by the people that bring us Cirque du Soleil, so it has an elegant, whimsical charm, and it all centers around a love of horses. There are 32 horses representing 17 different breeds that perform in an intimate ring surrounded by only 2,000 seats. It's an up close and personal venue as performers (of the human variety) also go up into the stands.

Tickets are priced at $56 and $49 for adults, with discounts for children and seniors. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays, with 3 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Friday and Saturday shows at 9:30 p.m. will be added starting on Dec. 21.

To get to the arena, you walk through the stables and can see the horses up close and get to know their names. A sign warns: "Please don't touch the horses in order not to disturb their concentration." And that's understandable since the horses are getting ready to perform a variety of tricks. In addition to dressage and carousel demonstrations, horses do a sidestep, walk backward, tap dance, run in unison and do figure eights.

The human performers are just as impressive, as they work in concert with the horses to perform somersaults and other tricks on their backs and leap from horse to horse. In another vignette, two young boys perform similar tricks on a miniature pony.

There is even a love story, with horses curtseying at the end, and a comedy routine with a horse that does everything to frustrate a man trying to mount him, including rolling over with the man on his back.

All in all, it's an ode to horses, and to horse lovers.

* The Triple Q contest at the Santa Fe has been canceled and will be replaced with a new contest (or two) very soon.

* Next Thursday (Dec. 13) brings the last "King of the Hill" handicapping contest of the year at the Coast Resorts properties (The Orleans, Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, Suncoast). If no one wins the progressive prize, a separate contest will be held at a later date to award the money.

* Kelly Downey, who was at the Fiesta, will run the race and sports book at the soon-to-be-opened Green Valley Ranch (Dec. 18). Bert Cirincione, formerly Downey's assistant, now will manage the Fiesta race and sports book. Tony Miller is now the book manager at Santa Fe.