11/23/2001 12:00AM

Attending to unfinished business


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Forget about the small talk. If you want to chat about the weather, or the Lakers, find someone who cares, because it isn't Michael Paulson, and it should come as no surprise.

"My dad was kind of a quiet, private man," Paulson said. "He didn't talk just to carry on a conversation. I guess I'm kind of the same way."

His father was Allen Paulson, whose death in July 2000 left a gaping hole in the fabric of the racing business. It took a lot of guts and a whole load of money to accomplish what he did in a relatively short span of time.

And yet, in the midst of all the excitement generated by such horses as Cigar, Arazi, and Theatrical, the public Paulson was a shy, soft-spoken man who could seem distant, even disconnected, to events swirling around him.

In truth, Allen Paulson was a restless soul, never satisfied with the last thing he did, always searching for the next. He was endlessly entertained by the challenge of the business deal, especially when the deal went down heavily in his favor. "For better or worse, money is how we keep score in this society," he once said, insisting that what money meant was more important than what money could buy.

"That was my dad," Michael Paulson said this week. "When he made a commitment to something, he never did it half way."

Allen Paulson's commitment to horse racing is now in the hands of his living trust. Paulson was already consolidating and dispersing assets before his death - including the sale of farms in Kentucky and Florida - and now it has fallen upon Michael to play out the remaining inventory for the benefit of the trust and Paulson's beneficiaries.

"There is no replacing my dad," Michael said. "But he always had high hopes for me. We were very close. He always confided in me. It wasn't like I could necessarily jump right into his shoes, but he knew I could handle things on his behalf."

One of the prime assets of the trust will be on display Sunday at Hollywood Park, when Startac takes the field for the $500,000 Hollywood Derby. Startac won the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park in August to stamp himself the real thing.

"It's very comforting to see my dad's silks out there, his horses still winning," Michael said. "It's like he's still with us. His legacy lives on."

At the age of 46 and the youngest of Paulson's four sons (one was killed in a plane crash), Michael Paulson is not exactly a familiar face on the racing scene. He was there, but in the background, for most of the Cigar saga of the mid-1990's. And he has not been shy about stepping forward as the primary executor of his father's trust.

Unfortunately, the initial headlines made by Michael Paulson did nothing to create a fan club. Last May, he decided that Startac should run in the Kentucky Derby, even though the colt had just run two very mediocre races and over the reluctance of trainer Simon Bray. Startac finished 10th at 102-1.

Then, just two days after Startac's resurrection in the Secretariat, Paulson directed Bray to turn over the nine horses owned by the trust to trainer Laura de Seroux, wife of bloodstock agent and longtime Allen Paulson advisor Emmanuel de Seroux.

In the larger business world, such moves are made all the time, and they make barely a ripple of news. Laura de Seroux was already training a group of Paulson trust horses, including Checkpoint Charlie, Cigar's brother. Bray continued to train the horses owned by Madeleine Paulson, who had married Allen in 1988 and remains a beneficiary of the trust. In racing's insulated society, however, the barn switch and the cast of characters made for juicy treatment in the industry press. Insinuations flew.

"It was almost amusing, how the reports were distorted," Michael Paulson said. "The way my dad taught me to do business was to take the high road. If somebody wants to bring me to the gutter, they'll go there by themselves."

In the wake of his father's death, Michael Paulson has been forced to learn a lot more about horse racing in a short period of time. But at least he knows his way around a horse. In his youth, when Allen was building his aerospace fortune through Grumman and Gulfstream, Michael and his brothers spent summers at the family ranch in Idaho. Michael recalls that the only form of transportation was horseback. One of his favorites was a Quarter Horse named Trailblazer.

"I love horses," Paulson said. "But now that I'm overseeing things in my dad's operations, I'm kind of going to school. The industry is very exciting, very stimulating. You've got the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, so you have to condition yourself. I remember when Arazi lost the Derby, I'd never seen my dad more upset. Then Cigar came along, and he was the happiest guy in the world."

A big race by Startac in the Hollywood Derby could propel him to the top rank of turf horses for the 2002 season to come. At the same time, the grand mare Astra is on the comeback trail for de Seroux and the Paulson trust. This is fine by Michael Paulson. Such horses fit well in the Paulson universe.

Still, there is one piece of unfinished business that the son would like to complete for his father.

"Dad always wanted to win the Kentucky Derby," Michael said. "That's why I wanted to give Startac a chance. Maybe it will happen next year. We've got a real nice colt by Geri, out of a Seattle Slew mare, that I named A.P. Slew.

"A lot of people are confused, though. They think he's by A.P. Indy."

And then they figure it out.