09/24/2002 12:00AM

When the lights go down


SAN MATEO, Calif. - Paul Nicolo sees so many films each week that he should have an Academy Awards vote.

Nicolo, a 46-year-old former rider, is the clerk of scales and film analyst at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, and when he gives a "thumbs down," it really means something.

In his job as film analyst, he serves as a liaison between jockeys and stewards, often reviewing rides with jockeys before they appear before the stewards.

Nicolo begins his day by working in the racing office from 8 to 10 a.m., taking entries and dealing with horsemen. When the track closes after morning workouts, Nicolo shifts to the film room next to the jockeys' quarters and reviews videotapes tapes of previously run races with the riders. In the afternoon he works as the clerk of scales, weighing riders in and out of the jockeys' room before and after each race.

While some jockeys have been ordered by stewards to watch films of their rides with Nicolo, many younger riders come in on their own to watch races and receive his counsel.

"I'll explain what the stewards' thinking is, and I'll also know what the rider is thinking," Nicolo said. "I tell them, 'Don't waste a good story on a bad ride.' "

Stewards can order jockeys to view films even if they do not face a hearing, and Nicolo encourages apprentice riders to watch films whenever they can.

"I think it's invaluable to watch films when you're a young bug rider," he said. "I try to bring the bugs in daily. The ones who want to learn are in on their own, unless they're really struggling. Then they try to avoid me."

Apprentice Francisco Duran appreciates Nicolo's tough-love approach.

"He's very good at explaining things," said the much-improved Duran, who was the leading rider on the summer fair circuit. "You learn from him, but he lets you know right away when you make a mistake."

Journeymen riders also come to view films.

"When things happen that they can't figure out, veterans come in," Nicolo said. "Any time you lose [by] a face, you can always find that face somewhere and try to eliminate something."

Steward Darrel McHargue, an Eclipse Award-winning jockey, calls the role of the film analyst "extremely important.

"A good film analyst can point things out to riders," McHargue said. "He can show them what they've done wrong and get input on what they're thinking."

Nicolo believes his experience as a rider helps him as an analyst.

"I think I have a lot more insight than people who didn't ride," he said, "although some of the best stewards I ever dealt with haven't swung a leg over a horse.

"Riding five years is worth 20 years of looking."

Nicolo, who has passed the stewards' examination but has yet to receive an assignment, began his career as a film analyst in 1994. He said at first he looked at films as a rider, but that he now has a different perspective.

"When I was riding, I didn't care what the public thought," Nicolo said. "Now, I realize you ride for them. From a public standpoint, rules have to be interpreted."

In addition to reviewing films with riders, Nicolo will show them to owners and trainers upon request.

"Trainers and owners can learn a lot about their horses, particularly bad gate horses," Nicolo said.

Nicolo will critique rides with jockeys but he offers no opinions to trainers.

"I had a trainer who came in once and thought he saw problems," Nicolo said. "He pointed them out and asked me what I thought. I told him I thought his horse couldn't run. He hasn't been back since."