12/01/2005 12:00AM

'Twas a furlong before Christmas . . .


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For those who missed the opportunity to bid on the 1969 Kentucky Derby trophy when it was offered at auction last July (and sold for $60,000), take heart. There are still three weeks left before the holidays arrive, and anyone who shops smart still can snag the perfect gift for the horse racing fan who has everything.

Everything except, perhaps, some fine racing art in the form of a lighted Budweiser bar sign, originally issued in 1959, that depicts a handsome couple standing on a racetrack terrace looking off into the distance at a field of racing Thoroughbreds.

Budweiser was not the only beer brewer to latch onto horse racing. Starting more than 60 years ago, Pennsylvania's Rolling Rock label issued a series of tin signs that featured famous racing legends. Good luck on finding an original, but the best of the reproductions is the classic "Three Kings," a group portrait including Man o' War, Seabiscuit, and Whirlaway, considered the three best of all time, at least until Citation came along.

There are any number of presentable books and DVD's tackling a variety of how-to racing subjects, from gambling on the ponies to owning and training the stubborn things. Still, there are a few corners of the sport not covered, which makes Select-a-Name the perfect gift for some Thoroughbred owners.

Some owners get it. They name their horses with creative flair, pleasant to the ear and handsome on the page, even if they end up running for $2,000 tags at the local county fair. Stevie Wonderboy topped the list of rocking good names to make headlines this year, closely followed by Lost in the Fog, Shakespeare, and Giacomo. The groaners are too numerous to name, but help is on the way. Why not choose a gift that will keep on giving, as long as the horse is around, and buy a gift certificate from Select-a-Name, an Australian company that advertises a professional naming service that provides "memorable names for memorable horses!"

"There is no more important task as an owner," states their literature, "than to provide your horse with the perfect name."

This is an arguable point, of course, since trainers might place paying the bills a bit higher on the list. But Select-a-Name pushes hard, warning not to give "an inane or banal name to your potential champion," and further promising that "a fine and noble name gives your horse a chance at racing immortality." This, of course, explains why the Thoroughbred named Hovdey ended up running in claimers at Fonner Park.

For those who insist on spending their hard-earned holiday budget on betting systems, one of them stood out for sheer gall. Called "Bookie's Nightmare," the enclosed software program "will tell you where to put your money and how much to place on a particular horse. You don't even have to know much about racing. The software will do everything for you." Ah, if it were only that easy.

All roads lead eventually to eBay, where the input of "horse racing" generated more than 2,000 items, not counting the usual avalanche of Kentucky Derby glasses.

In the sub-category of horse racing games, a few antiques popped up, including Escalado - the Classic Horse Racing Game, Remco's Giant Wheel Horse Race Game (offering "Thrills'n Spills"), and Win, Place & Show, sort of a Monopoly-style endeavor in which each player starts with a $50,000 bankroll, which is usually gone in a flash if you land on the square labeled "Keeneland Sales."

Whitman's Kentucky Derby Horse Racing Game, originally issued circa 1938, remains basically the rock and stick of racing board games with its color-coded spinner and horse pieces sliding along in slots toward the finish line. It is mostly for kids. As for the grown-ups, it was a true pleasure to see that the dark prince of racing board games has been issued afresh.

The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game was mentioned in this space last year, and as a result, sales must have shot through the roof. "Plot, Scheme and 'Revenge' Your Way to the Finish Line," reads the game's subtitle, and the makers (by Upstarts) aren't kidding.

There are several strategies available in getting through a race and acquiring the most money in purses and gambles. But the most popular, without a doubt, is making wagers on opposing pieces and then doing all in your power to keep your own entry from winning. There are allegations that this option has also popped up from time to time in connection with the Betfair sports betting exchange, where, apparently, real money and real jockeys are used.

Finally, it is inevitable that horse racing computer games are on the march, leading with the Xbox offering from the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, introduced earlier this year.

However, among true devotees, there may be stiff competition from the British game called "John McCririck's Starters Orders," complete with a cover photo of the muttonchopped chatterbox himself in full costume and character. It should be noted, however, that while sales sites advertising "Starters Orders" include a detailed explanation of the game's rules, extras, and special effects, no effort is made to explain McCririck himself.