09/03/2003 12:00AM

Final credits yet to roll


DEL MAR, Calif. - The news that "Seabiscuit" passed the magic $100 million mark last weekend in steady box office receipts must be of some consolation to writer-director Gary Ross and producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. After all, their real racehorse left the theaters last May without making much of a ripple.

Atswhatimtalknbout - the horse in question - is owned primarily by B. Wayne Hughes, that most patient of long-suffering owners, whose investment in the racing game could settle the debt of most Third World countries. His tall, rangy colt with the mouthful of a name made noise like he might be one of the ones last winter at Santa Anita Park, when he came flying late to just miss in the San Felipe Stakes.

After a so-so race in the Santa Anita Derby, Atswhatimtalknbout ended up in the Kentucky Derby, surrounded by movie folk and high expectations. It was the sixth race of his life in a span of only four months, and he ran a bang-up race to be fourth, beaten two lengths by Funny Cide and a long neck for second, while encountering a ton of trouble along the way. For his trainer, Ron Ellis, the videotape replay was definitely X-rated.

"Did you see the head-on?" Ellis asked. "Until I saw that view I didn't realize how hard he got pinched going into the far turn, and how long he was blocked in there. I'm not bitter about it. Luck has a lot to do with the Derby. I just wish he could have gotten up for second, because second looks a lot better than fourth in the history books."

While training for the Belmont Stakes, Atswhatimtalknbout developed an abscess in a hoof, and that was that. Once more, the Triple Crown trail had taken its toll.

Besides Atswhatimtalknbout, the list of newsmaking 3-year-olds injured during the spring included Vindication, Buddy Gil, Kafwain, Sir Cherokee, Brancusi, and Indian Express. And there is no guarantee that the Derby and Preakness winner, Funny Cide, will run again this year after his dull race in the Haskell and subsequent illness.

Such attrition takes a terrible toll on the quality of the older division in the following seasons. But this is nothing new. It is no surprise to discover that of the top 10 horses on the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic world rankings, only Medaglia d'Oro was a participant in the 2002 American classics.

The good news, at least regarding Atswhatimtalknbout, is that Ellis pulled him up early before any problem became irreversible. The colt has spent the last three months at Santa Anita, growing a healthy new foot. He began jogging in August, and now he is galloping with a 4-year-old campaign in mind.

"I kept him light, so he hasn't filled out the way I think he's going to once he starts doing more, and we start pouring the grain to him." Ellis said. "I've found the best horses I've had don't do well when they're not training. They lose their muscle tone, and don't look that good until they start to get really fit. On the other hand, you can give an ordinary horse time off and they get all fat and good-looking."

To his credit, Ellis is one of those trainers who gets the horse fit first, then looks for a race. Now that he has escaped the once-in-a-lifetime pressure of the Kentucky Derby, Atswhatimtalknbout can be free to fulfill whatever his destiny may hold. The Malibu Stakes, on Santa Anita's Dec. 26 opening day, might be the perfect setting - if he is ready. If not, there will be plenty of other opportunities.

"If he were to come back and become a top older horse, people might take another look at his Derby," Ellis said. "I think he still has a chance to vindicate himself."

Hirsch nears return

Ellis is one of those trainers who considers time an ally, not an enemy. Joe Hirsch admires such an attitude. While Atswhatimtalknbout was putting the finishing touches on his new hoof, Hirsch was laying low during the Saratoga meet, letting his injured shoulder heal.

Now, that nagging, empty feeling experienced by Daily Racing Form readers for the past seven weeks is about to disappear. Hirsch is scheduled to return to these pages in Saturday's edition, as the Belmont fall meet gets into full swing.

"I tripped in the press box at the end of Saratoga's opening day and fractured my shoulder," Hirsch said from his Manhattan home on Wednesday. "Nobody's fault but mine. Fortunately, it heals itself, if you just let nature take its course."

The reader is left to decide whether or not Hirsch's spill was a cruel cosmic joke or just plain bad fortune. The Saratoga press box, it should be noted, is named in honor of Joe Hirsch.

But at least he was at the famous Spa, where the mineral waters of Saratoga Springs are world renowned. Certainly, Hirsch availed himself of their healing effects.

"I don't know anything about water," Hirsch replied. "Never was my game."