03/13/2003 12:00AM

Clouds of doubt shadow San Felipe favorites

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The commingled issues of form, class, and intent rarely are more apparent than in graded stakes for 3-year-olds, including the most important in California this season - the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita.

You don't win the San Felipe by luck. It takes a good horse, like the last three winners - Medaglia d'Oro last year; or Horse of the Year Point Given in 2001; or Fusaichi Pegasus, Kentucky Derby winner 2000. On Sunday, favorites Atswhatimtalknbout, Domestic Dispute, and Man Among Men try to join the elite list. But which one is up to the challenge?

Atswhatimtalknbout possesses raw ability and enormous upside potential. The colt, by A.P. Indy, has raced just three times and improved in each start. His Beyer Speed Figures have mushroomed from 87 to 92 to 105. One wonders if the upward spiral is too fast and too soon. One might even question the accuracy of the figures.

Yet the numbers have been validated by those Atswhatimtalknbout has defeated. Four horses who finished behind him in a Jan. 4 maiden race have returned to win. Two who finished behind Atswhatimtalknbout in his Feb. 20 allowance win returned to win allowance races - runner-up During and fourth-place finisher Nationwide News.

The speed figures and company lines support Atswhatimtalknbout's chances Sunday in his first graded stakes. Except for one thing - trainer Ron Ellis does not want the Derby candidate to empty his tank in the middle of March.

"He's been on a pattern [of improvement]," Ellis said. "I'd like him to start a new pattern. I want him to peak in the next two races, not this one."

The message is clear. Atswhatimtalknbout is not expected to deliver a peak performance Sunday. Ellis is using the San Felipe for its intended purpose - as a prep race. His instructions to jockey David Flores will be similar to his instructions in the colt's second start Jan. 24. That is, make certain he finishes. If he gets up and wins, that is great. If he runs well and comes up short, so be it.

Atswhatimtalknbout may still win the San Felipe on raw ability. But a bettor must ask questions before supporting a horse in a prep. Is the horse good enough to win? What is the purpose of the race? Is there a higher agenda? Atswhatimtalknbout is good enough. But the race is mostly practice - the first in a "new pattern." There is a higher agenda - the Santa Anita and Kentucky derbies.

Regarding intent, those of the connections of Domestic Dispute are easier to interpret. Trainer Bob Baffert has pointed him to the San Felipe since his Jan. 18 triumph in the Grade 3 Santa Catalina. Domestic Dispute's recent workouts are solid, he looks strong physically, and - more so than Atswhatimtalknbout - he can afford to deliver a top effort now. Freshened two months, he is a new horse launching a new campaign.

Yet there is doubt concerning the validity of Domestic Dispute's victory in the Santa Catalina. Runner-up Our Bobby V. returned and finished fourth in the San Rafael; third-place finisher Scrimshaw shipped to Gulfstream and was drilled in the Hutcheson; fourth-place Crackup was nowhere in his next start at Golden Gate; fifth-place Storm Gulch was eased in his next start. Domestic Dispute has not been flattered by their performances.

The figures (he earned a 103 Beyer in the Santa Catalina) say Domestic Dispute is a top horse. And, his third-place finish in the Hollywood Futurity - beaten three lengths by Toccet and Kafwain - looks good on paper. Toccet, of course, has not raced since. Kafwain appears to have distance limitations. That leaves Domestic Dispute in a gray area. He is ready to fire. But based on the horses he raced against, the answer to "Is he good enough?" is still unknown.

Man Among Men is nearly as perplexing. While he defeated Peace Rules in October, that race was on grass. While Man Among Men won the Sham Stakes in his first route race on dirt, he did so under circumstances that were ideal for a turf horse. He raced in the clear throughout, ate no dirt, and earned a decent but not overpowering 99 Beyer.

By the time the San Felipe is run Sunday, the validity of the Sham will be clear. That is because Sham runner-up Empire Maker runs Saturday in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. If Empire Maker runs well, he will flatter Man Among Men's victory in the Sham. But it will not determine if Man Among Men can eat dirt, and rally from behind the uncomfortable kickback that dirt horses routinely must tolerate.

Regarding current condition, the Gary Mandella-trained Man Among Men enters with momentum. Man Among Men was scheduled to skip the San Felipe and await the Santa Anita Derby. He trained so strongly out of the Sham, however, that he practically pulled himself into the San Felipe. The horse is ready. But can he win a dirt race without a comfortable trip racing in the clear? It cannot be answered. Yet.

The San Felipe favorites face issues of doubt. At least one of the three - Atswhatimtalknbout, Domestic Dispute, or Man Among Men - is likely to rebuke the challenge and emerge as a good horse, possibly the new favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

But their perceived vulnerability makes the San Felipe two things - the most important Santa Anita 3-year-old stakes of winter, and also the most wide open.