01/10/2003 1:00AM

For $5,000 claim, payback is rich

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NEW ORLEANS - There were about 30 claims filed for Talknow when he dropped into a $5,000 claiming race Oct. 27, 2001, at Arlington Park. Trainer Tom Tomillo dropped one of the claiming slips for his son, Tom Jr., and Tom's partner, Emilio Geloso. It was like winning the lottery.

Fourteen months later, Talknow shows no signs of losing his remarkable form. Sunday at Fair Grounds he tackles stakes horses in the $75,000 Colonel Power Handicap, and despite once running in bottom-level claimers, Talknow is by no means overmatched.

In 16 starts since his claim, Talknow has won an amazing 11 times, finishing second three times and third once. Only once during that period has Talknow been worse than third, and, besides a slew of starter allowance races, he has won an open handicap and a $50,000 Claiming Crown race in August. His 2002 earnings were more than $181,000.

Finally, after the Claiming Crown win, Talknow needed a break.

"He campaigned pretty hard, and he came up with a little problem," Tom Tomillo Sr. said.

When he returned to racing Dec. 14 at Hawthorne, Talknow raced in an optional claimer for a claiming price ($50,000) for the first time since his claim. Was Talknow on the downside of his remarkable run? These low-level claiming stories often follow a similar trajectory, with declining form following a string of peak performances.

That must have been what rival horsemen thought, because nobody claimed Talknow that day.

"I wasn't worried about him getting claimed, but my son was," Tomillo said. "Heck, we only gave $5,000."

Tomillo said he hadn't trained Talknow hard for his comeback race, but Talknow didn't care, charging rallying down the middle of the track in the stretch to win by almost two lengths.

Two weeks later, Talknow was back in a Hawthorne stakes, and he was even sharper, taking the lead in upper stretch and winning easily. Talknow's six-furlong time was just over 1:08, and he ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.60.

"He's doing even better now than in his last couple races," said Tomillo.

So is his trainer. In October, Tomillo had quintuple bypass surgery that kept him in the hospital for a month. As Talknow readied for his comeback, so did Tomillo, who said his health is improving every day.

"Now I feel strong enough where I can come to the track every morning," he said

Asmussen taking stock

Trainer Steve Asmussen is in the process of sorting out his 3-year-old prospects, deciding which races and which racetracks best suit the stock for which he has hopes. These decisions are worth following, since Asmussen won the Louisiana Derby two years ago with Fifty Stars and missed by a nose last year when Easyfromthegitgo was edged by Repent.

Right now, there is nothing close to that caliber in the Asmussen barn, but Asmussen believes things are not much different than in the last two years.

"We have prospects right now, just like we had last year," Asmussen said. "We have some nice horses that are going to win good races, but whether it's here or later in the year is what's yet to be determined."

Fair Grounds's first 3-year-old route stakes, the Lecomte, is on Jan. 25, and Asmussen said he is not certain he will have a starter for it. Two colts under consideration are Mr. Decatur and Shawklit Man, one of whom may wind up in a stakes at Oaklawn.

Another possibility for the Lecomte is Grand Steal, perhaps the most impressive maiden winner so far this meet. But Grand Steal's two starts both were in sprints, and Asmussen isn't eager to ask Grand Steal to try stakes company while racing two turns for the first time.

"He's got a lot of talent, but there's a long way between talent and derbies," Asmussen said.