07/19/2007 12:00AM

For Ellis it all began right here


DEL MAR, Calif. - Since there was already a 16-year-old in the room, it seemed like a good idea to ask Ron Ellis what he was doing at that particularly impressionable age.

"I was working the Del Mar meet, walking hots for Larry Sterling, living in a tack room," Ellis said. "And believe me, it wasn't nearly as nice as this one."

That last part was directed at the 16-year-old herself, one Elizabeth Ellis, whose racing pedigree reads like something out of a Keeneland sales page. Her father has been a rock-solid member of the Southern California Thoroughbred scene since his early 20s, when his one-horse stable was made up of the ace sprinter To B. or Not. Her mother, the former Amy McGee, is an ex-model and die-hard handicapper, and Elizabeth's uncle Paul McGee is among the top trainers of the Midwest.

This summer, instead of following in the family tradition of walking hots and sleeping amidst the cobwebs of an old adobe barn, Elizabeth Ellis is taking a far more sensible career path as production assistant for TVG, shadowing racing analyst Christina Olivares. In her spare time she rifles through racing history - especially her dad's - and even presented him with a special scrapbook on his 47th birthday last March. Her reaction to its contents was revealing:

"Dad," Elizabeth said, "I didn't know you were so good."

Ellis sighed. So it goes in the world he chose, where you are only deemed as good as last week's results. By such narrow standards, Ellis should be on track for the Hall of Fame, having just completed a Hollywood Park meet during which he won with 22 of 57 starters. For those who refuse to do long division (welcome to the club), that is a remarkable strike rate of 38 percent.

"I don't understand why people have such short attention spans," Ellis said. "I had a comeback? Oh, really. I checked my stats, and two years ago I was close to 30 percent for the whole year (actually 28 percent). Then last year I 'slipped' to about 21 percent.

"This year I had a terrible Santa Anita meet. I only won three races, but I had a lot of seconds and thirds, and I ran some horses on turf to avoid the chance of getting them hurt on dirt. And so you hear this summer, 'Man, he didn't do anything for so long.'"

Of course, in these modern times, with rampant success can come suspicion. Not long ago, the California Horse Racing Board even explored the notion that any trainer winning at better than a 25 percent clip should be placed under some type of surveillance. The idea didn't fly.

"Elizabeth called me one day during Hollywood and said, Daddy, what are you using? I promise not to tell,'" Ellis said, while Elizabeth laughed. "Heck, I wish someone would tell me what I'm using."

Such dark comedy comes only from someone whose sense of humor has survived after more than a quarter of a century in the game. As a teenager, Ellis was horse crazy, practiaclly running away from home to join the racing circus.

"The first summer I worked at Del Mar, Vigors was a 2-year-old," Ellis said, summoning the name of the grand white creature who remains one of the West's most enduring stars. "He was also the first horse that got loose from me.

"They told me he was the best 2-year-old in the barn. I remember saying, if he's that good, why would you trust me with him? Oh, but he's real nice, they said. Well, he could get up pretty high, and I was greener than grass. So away he went."

Fortunately, somebody caught Vigors. In gratitude, he went on to win such events as the Santa Anita Handicap, San Antonio Handicap, and Holywood Turf Invitational. Neither was Ellis discouraged by the incident.

"It was a great life," he said. "I thought I'd be hotwalking in the morning, go to the beach for a few hours, come back to the races, go out all night, and start all over again the next day. I figured if I could do that the rest of my life I'd be a happy guy."

Instead, he ended up a full-fledged trainer at the age of 20, saddling his first stakes winner at Del Mar during the summer of 1980. His patrons through the years have included such well-known owners as Marty Wygod, Wayne Hughes and the Mace Siegel family, and more recently Gary Broad, son of real estate tycoon and philanthropist Eli Broad.

Ellis will jump into major Del Mar action Saturday with Buzzards Bay, the 2007 Californian Stakes winner who will carry Broad's colors in the San Diego Handicap against Strub Stakes winner Arson Squad and San Fernando Stakes winner Awesome Gem.

A deep, mahogany chestnut with creative white trim both fore and aft, Buzzards Bay comes on like Popeye right after a spinach fix. Still, he has not run since the June 2 Californian, leaving open questions of fitness.

"I guarantee he would be fit enough if the race was on Cushion Track at Hollywood, but who knows how he'll handle Polytrack here," Ellis said. "At the very least, I can always hope he runs to his looks."

That may be enough.