01/22/2003 12:00AM

Derby's what they're talking


ARCADIA, Calif. - In a perfect scenario, trainer Ron Ellis would take it easy with Atswhatimtalknbout. A deliberate campaign would be planned, similar to Tiznow's in his 2000 drive to Horse of the Year.

Nevertheless, the Kentucky Derby chase is rarely perfect. That is why Ellis and owner B. Wayne Hughes will press on with Atswhatimtalknbout, an A.P. Indy colt who goes long and meets winners Friday at Santa Anita, just three weeks after an electrifying sprint debut.

"He'd be better on the Tiznow program, but that's not where the action is," Ellis said. "People aren't looking for Tiznow, they're looking for Silver Charm."

Any one of the seven 3-year-old colts entered in race 7 Friday would become an instant Derby candidate by winning the mile race for nonwinners-other-than. It is not a one-horse race. Listen Indy has trained well for his first start since the Breeders' Cup; front-runner Apalachian Thunder is expected to use his speed this time instead of forfeiting a tactical advantage by being guzzled down again; and Nationwide News has worked well since a dead-heat maiden win Dec. 26. Taliano, Devote, and Mr. Joe B also entered.

"There may be some upcoming stars," said David Hofmans, who scratched Nationwide News from the Santa Catalina Stakes on Saturday to run in the allowance. Hofmans said he thought Nationwide News had the talent for the Santa Catalina, "but I don't think he was seasoned enough."

That is the dilemma facing Atswhatimtalknbout, the most hyped maiden winner of the meet. "If he's going to make these 3-year-old races, he's going to need some seasoning," Ellis said. "You're trying to get everything done in a short time."

Along the way, Ellis will try to protect the colt. Instructions to jockey David Flores will be to take back and make a run. Same as his debut - if he gets there, fine. If not, that's fine also.

"We have to do what's right for the horse," Ellis said, "that's not run all-out, all the time."

Atswhatimtalknbout won his debut, and he could win again Friday, at low odds. Nevertheless, besides the positive visual impression of his debut, a long-distance pedigree, and terrific looks, Atswhatimtalknbout enters without a genuine advantage.

Only one horse has a good recent dirt route. That is Apalachian Thunder, whose slow-pace strategy under Pat Valenzuela in a similar race

Dec. 28 negated his advantage. Said trainer Bob Baffert: "He choked him down, he took all the fight out of him."

If allowed to roll Friday, Apalachian Thunder may be long gone.

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