03/17/2004 12:00AM

Wanted: Celebrities with style


ARCADIA, Calif. - The options are endless. The imagination soars. The name of the game is Premier Thoroughbred Ventures, and, gang, the sky is the absolute limit.

Spawned by Nick Nicholson of Keeneland and Barry Weisbord of Thoroughbred Daily News, the plan revolves around the current crop of 2-year-olds owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis. Right now there are 27 juicy prospects, but there could be a few more by the time their investment value is set in stone next month.

A 10-percent stake in the Lewis 2-year-olds will be offered to 15 investors representing three distinct types of ownership species.

"According to the way Barry has devised the plan, five might have celebrity status, five might be prominent people in the business world, and five would be ordinary, run-of-the-mill people such as ourselves," said Bob Lewis.

Right. Just ordinary, run-of-the-mill people who happen to own two Kentucky Derby trophies, a Dubai World Cup, and Eclipse Awards for five different champions, including a Horse of the Year.

It was no accident that the Lewises were the owners of choice for the Premier Thoroughbred plan. They fairly drip with good fortune, gliding through the game for the past 14 years with a contagious, "How about that!" attitude that seems ripe for sophisticated marketing.

When it comes to beer distributors, Bob Lewis has certainly attained celebrity status. But the guy who supplies the brew never catches the attention of "Entertainment Tonight" or "E!" Like it or not, horse racing gets more media bang from a single filly owned by Joe Pesci than a hundred Frank Stronach homebreds.

"I'm not particularly attracted to celebrities," Bob Lewis said. "My only interest is in trying to promote the game, and give back a little to a sport that has given us such great joy."

Bob Lewis came of age when celebrities had names like Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra. There were no "celebrities" in the business world, unless they answered to Whitney, Mellon, or Hertz. And they all owned racehorses, anyway.

Never forget that Del Mar and Santa Anita were built with a ton of show business money, and that Hollywood Park was called Hollywood Park for a reason. It seems like ancient history, but even as recently as the mid-1970's, the West Coast enjoyed a glorious season of celebrity racing when the two best young horses bred in California were owned by Telly Savalas and Rod Steiger.

Telly's Pop got most of the ink because of the popular "Kojak" cop show starring Savalas. But when the two met in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita in the winter of 1975, Stained Glass, owned by Steiger, stole the show from runner-up Telly's Pop, and the hyper-competitive Steiger saluted the Savalas crew with what can only be described as a single Oscar salute: "Who loves ya, baby?"

When it came to racehorses, Steiger and Savalas were one-hit wonders. Any number of entertainers have come and gone since then, including Kevin Costner, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Wagner, Rita Rudner, and Reba McEntire. None of them, though, have had the staying power of, say, Burt Bacharach or John Forsythe.

Since he is the one making Premier Thoroughbred Ventures possible, Bob Lewis should get first choice on his potential celebrity partners. He hemmed and hawed and allowed that no one immediately came to mind, then said:

"I think you'd like me to say Madonna, wouldn't you?"

Well, sure, if Beverly wouldn't mind.

It would be great, though, if the five celebrities could come pre-packaged as their own traveling media circus, a perfect racing posse. Possibilities abound.

How about the Lakers' Fab Four - Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton? Of course, coach Phil Jackson would have nothing but fun second-guessing Baffert or Lukas.

Or maybe they could get a tighter crew, like the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, or We Five, if they're still around.

But wait. There is a natural fit. Everyone knows that horse racing is badly in need of a makeover, from its ancient grandstands, to its aging demographics, to its deadly reliance on dreary shades of green and brown. If they are smart, Nicholson and Weisbord will plug into the white-hot celebrity of those five style-conscious lads from TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" - Kyan Douglas, Ted Allen, Carson Kressley, Jai Rodriguez, and Thom Filicia - whose sudden pan-cultural fame has undoubtedly left them with piles of disposable cash and looking for new worlds to conquer.

They will love the Lewis silks, raving over green and yellow hoops as "so the new orange." They will fret about the thread-count in the saddlecloths, the retro livery of the horn blower, and the alarming lack of moisturizer among bloodstock agents. And they will Feng Shui the winner's circle to death.

Call it "Queer Eye for the Quarter Pole," but make the call.