04/01/2003 1:00AM

At least he will keep pace honest


ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer Jim Cassidy and jockey Mark Johnston are bucking the odds Saturday with Santa Anita Derby longshot Iron Lad, yet the European import will influence the 1 1/8-mile race in at least one regard - he adds integrity to a murky pace scenario. Nine starters are expected, and as Cassidy said, "I don't know if any of them really wants to go to the lead. I expect [Indian Express] to be sent, and [Iron Lad] to be not far behind."

In other words, don't expect anyone to steal the Grade 1 race. Atswhatimtalknbout will be favored over a field also expected to include Buddy Gil, Domestic Dispute, Ocean Terrace, Kafwain, Ministers Wild Cat, and Logician. It is an unusual spot for Cassidy to take a shot with Iron Lad, who won 1 of 10 last year in Europe. His two starts in the U.S. produced a fifth-place finish in an allowance sprint and a seventh-place finish in the San Rafael.

"We bought him to run him on the dirt, and neither Laffit [Pincay] nor Mike [Smith] was disappointed in his first two starts; neither had anything negative to say," Cassidy said.

But did they say anything positive? According to Cassidy, Pincay told him the colt rebroke and tried to finish in his comeback, though his running line shows him gradually losing ground. In the San Rafael, Smith was under instructions to take Iron Lad back and make a run. He trailed throughout. "Mike said that wasn't the thing to do."

Saturday, the newest member of the jockey colony will be instructed to let Iron Lad do his thing up front. Johnston, formerly based in Maryland, will ride Iron Lad, and Cassidy said the jockey "impressed me as the kind of guy who would want to get a horse into the race early."

Cassidy said the colt worked great Sunday, and "I think he'll enjoy the mile and an eighth; whether he enjoys it with this group, we'll see."

Atswhatimtalknbout came out of Monday's five-furlong work (58.60 seconds) in good shape, and walked the shed Tuesday. "He worked fast, but he was doing it so easy," trainer Ron Ellis said. "It wasn't a taxing work on him, he's not a slow horse. He'll be four or five lengths off the pace this time. We aren't messing around." Atswhatimtalknbout was rated in the San Felipe, rallying from last to second, but is expected to utilize his tactical speed Saturday.

Buddy Gil beat Atswhatimtalknbout by a nose in the San Felipe, and will try to upset him Saturday at shorter odds. Buddy Gil won the Baldwin Stakes at 26-1, and the San Felipe at 9-1. "He might get more respect this time," trainer Jeff Mullins said. Buddy Gil's most recent official workout was a five-furlong drill March 27, but Tuesday morning Mullins said "we let him go a quarter-mile at the end of a two-mile gallop."

Mullins returned Monday from Dubai, where his Captain Squire finished third in a $2 million sprint. "When I got back, [Buddy Gil] looked like he was a year older. He's put on more weight, that last race didn't take anything out of him, and he's been playing in his stall - he's never done that before."

While Atswhatimtalknbout's fast finish and strong gallop-out were all the rage following the San Felipe, Buddy Gil himself overcame a fair amount of trouble to win. He was blocked into and through much of the stretch before finally finding room to rally. "In a way, I wish he would have gotten clear, so we would know what we have," Mullins said. "But he saved himself, he never had to use himself up."

Lukas conspicuous by his absence

For the first time since 1978, trainer D. Wayne Lukas is not expected to have a starter in the Santa Anita Derby. Lukas shipped 16 horses from Santa Anita to Churchill Downs on Tuesday, including promising 3-year-olds Scrimshaw and Ten Cents a Shine. Scrimshaw underwent throat surgery March 3 following a fourth-place finish Feb. 15 in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and will train in Kentucky before his next start is determined.

One horse Lukas left behind was the 5-year-old mare Repository, expected to be among the favorites Saturday in the Grade 3 Las Cienegas Handicap for filly and mare turf sprinters. Repository won an overnight stakes March 12 despite fast fractions (21.13, 43.06 seconds). The win was her seventh from 25 starts. After the Las Cienegas, she will join Lukas's main string in Kentucky.

Congaree on target for Carter

Congaree blazed five furlongs Tuesday in 57.60, and may start next in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 12. "He looked good today, he loves Aqueduct, and seven-eighths shouldn't be a problem," trainer Bob Baffert said. A final decision on Congaree's status for the Carter will be made after weights are released.

Baffert's improving 3-year-old During also will run April 12 at Aqueduct, in the Wood Memorial, while the trainer considers which direction to go in with recent $1 million purchase Senor Swinger. "If I run him before the Derby, it'd be either the Wood or [the Arkansas Derby]. He's one horse who I know will go a mile and a quarter."

Atlantic Ocean will have prep for the Kentucky Oaks in 1 1/8-mile grass race at Santa Anita. She runs April 13 in the $150,000 Providencia Stakes.

Tiznow next for Grey Memo

Trainer Warren Stute was back on the job Tuesday, after his second trip to Dubai. Stute's California-bred Grey Memo finished second in the $1 million Godolphin Mile on Saturday, after winning it in 2002. Stute said Grey Memo will be considered for the 7 1/2-furlong, $150,000 Tiznow Stakes at Hollywood Park on April 26. "He's a tough little horse, he ships well," he said.

Stute's 3-year-old filly Watching You worked a half-mile in 49.40 breezing, her first work since a second-place finish to Buffythecenterfold on March 23 in the Santa Paula. Stute said Watching You will aim for the seven-furlong, Grade 3 Railbird on May 4 at Hollywood, the same race on Buffythecenterfold's agenda.

* Funeral services were held Monday for veteran racing writer Phil Norman, who retired from the San Diego Tribune in 1988. Norman died March 24 at his home in Ramona, Calif. He was 80.