12/28/2001 1:00AM

Amerman's stocking was full in 2001

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Sorry to burst any bubbles out there, but the real Santa Claus is a 69-year-old guy from Bloomfield, N.J., who lives in coastal L.A., has a horse farm in Temecula, a wife, two kids, and a business degree from Dartmouth. Yes, his hair is white, but it is trimmed neat as a pin and there has never been a long white beard. Or a red suit.

Okay, so John Amerman doesn't really answer to St. Nick. But what else would you call the man who ran the world's most famous toy company for 17 years?

As president of Mattel Inc. beginning in 1980 and then chairman and CEO from

1987 to 1997, Amerman helped fill more stockings and pile up more wrapping paper than anyone this side of the North Pole. December was crunch month, when the company would reap the sales rewards after manufacturing such cultural icons as Barbie, Hot Wheels, Scrabble, the Magic 8 Ball, Chatty Cathy, and my personal favorite, Rock'em Sock'em Robots.

The toy business was good - good enough that Amerman and his wife, Jerry, have been able to compile a racing stable that is beginning to rival the finest in North America. This year alone, their dark blue silks have been carried by Lido Palace, Siphonic, Happyanunoit, Heads Will Roll, and Printemps to significant

victories.

There is one more present to unwrap. On Sunday at Santa Anita, No Slip will try to put the icing on the Amermans' dream season in the $150,000 San Gabriel Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the grass. If he runs back to his win in the Oak Tree Derby over the same course, that will be good enough.

Such rampant success should come as no surprise. The Amermans got lucky with their first racing investment, when they were part of the Team Valor syndicate that owned Arlington Million winner Star of Cozzene. In 1995 they set out on their own, and since then they have tried to be cool and calculating in a hot and unpredictable Thoroughbred world.

"It's a hard business," John Amerman said. "A lot harder than being in the corporate world. We want to make some money - not because you have to, but because it tends to put discipline on what you do. I can't express how challenging it is. There's always something that's changing.

"That's why I look back at my time with toys," he went on. "There you're dealing with kids, and kids are fickle. With horse racing you've got a lot of balls in the air, and you've got to be flexible. That's why a lot of great trainers say you can't plan too far in advance."

Amerman is forgiven if his mind sometimes wanders a few months down the line. Siphonic's impressive win in the Hollywood Futurity for trainer Dave Hofmans made him the clear-cut West Coast leader in the chase for the 2002 Triple Crown. Whenever he needs to jump-start his day, Amerman simply pops in the videotape. A good mood is guaranteed.

"The challenge now is to keep him healthy," Amerman said. "That's why we're going to keep him in California. Shipping him around, you run the chance of banging him up, getting him sick. The key is to have a fresh horse for the Derby and what follows, because that's a horrible five weeks, isn't it?"

While Siphonic has a bead on the Santa Anita Derby and beyond, Lido Palace is the obvious ante-post favorite for the Santa Anita Handicap. No owner has ever won both races in the same season since 1938, back when 3-year-olds were allowed to run in the Handicap. Stagehand won them both for Col. Maxwell Howard.

Some would say Amerman blew the chance at owning the 2001 Horse of the Year when he declined to supplement Lido Palace to the Breeders' Cup Classic, hot on the heels of his victories in the Whitney and the Woodward for Bobby Frankel. Amerman sees it differently.

"Emotionally it made an awful lot of sense," he said. "But, at $800,000, financially it didn't make much sense at all. Anyway, there must be somebody up there who likes us. On the morning of the race at Belmont, we went to see Siphonic in Dave's barn, then went next door to visit Bobby. Lido Palace had a fever. So he would have been scratched, and we would have left about a quarter of a million on the table."

Amerman's patronage of several trainers - Ron McAnally handles Printemps - is consistent with his philosophy of horse shopping.

"Who was to figure that 'The Lion King' would be as big as it was? Or right now Harry Potter," he noted. "You try to take a little mystery out of the business by having staples that stay with you year after year. Perennials like Barbie, or Hot Wheels. They give you have a solid foundation.

"So we try to have a broad base in our horses. That way one can have a good year and maybe carry the others along. I think the same thing is true with the way we handle our trainers. They all have ups and downs."

Even though Hofmans has yet to do anything wrong with Siphonic, the Amermans have the bulk of their top horses with Frankel, and the best may be yet to come. Besides Lido Palace, Amerman thinks No Slip has a chance to be a true middle-distance star of 2002.

"Bobby, he's driven. He's like me," Amerman said. "Yesterday is history. He always wants to win the next one."