03/17/2004 12:00AM

Little guys bring out their big guns


NEW ORLEANS - In or around the barn of trainer Richie Scherer can be found a fat goat named Junior, who sometimes requires more attention than the horses his presence is supposed to soothe. About 10 minutes after Scherer was seen holding steady a push broom Junior used to scratch his horns, the trainer Jeff Trosclair was ducking bites and dodging kicks as he ran a brush over Skate Away's glossy coat. Skate Away is feeling so avid right now that he booted his groom (who is recovering nicely) into the hospital two weeks ago. Earlier in the day, the 48-year-old Trosclair had hung his 32-year-old riding helmet in his tack room - finished getting on his horses for the morning - to step into the role of groom.

They have been watching each other, these two fellows, Scherer on his speckled pony with an eye on Skate Away; Trosclair, on horseback or reclined in one of the chairs in front of his Fair Grounds barn, keenly noting the movements and manners of Mystery Giver.

On Sunday, for a change, racing fans the country over will tune in to both Scherer and Trosclair. Mystery Giver and Skate Away are among the best horses they have trained during their hard-nosed careers, and the pair should give ship-ins from famous stables like Bobby Frankel's and Bill Mott's all they want in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap.

In the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap here Jan. 31, Mystery Giver edged past Skate Away in deep stretch to win by a neck. The race looked good, and was rated highly: Mystery Giver earned a 104 Beyer Speed Figure, Skate Away a 102. Those are top-class turf numbers this season - the country's best grass figure this year is a 108 - and these two horses, Mystery Giver, 6, Skate Away, 5, are in excellent form.

This will be Mystery Giver's third try in the Muniz, formerly known as the Explosive Bid. Two years ago he lost all chance with a traffic-laden trip; last year, he was hung wide on the far turn, and might have run himself out before the stretch.

Skate Away has never been in this tough before, but never has been nearly this good before, either.

"As he turned 5, he just blossomed," said Trosclair, who rides Skate Away in routine gallops. "I've never had a horse come around like this."

Trosclair has 12 horses in training - and grandchildren. He started on the racetrack young, working his way into the position of assistant trainer for Bill Mott, where he stayed until 1990.

"Bill Mott's as humble as anyone who has been in this game," Trosclair said. "Just watching him, you learn that."

"I'm just a hard-working guy," said Trosclair. "I'm in a comfort zone where money's not a motivation for me. Not that making money hurts; it's just not what drives me. I'm just trying to do the best job I can for these animals. I absolutely love these horses."

Scherer's barn, some 50 yards away, takes a similarly straight-on approach. Scherer is no rider, but his life has circled around racing. Scherer's father, Merrill, is in the midst of a career meet at Fair Grounds. Richie Scherer's season still hangs in the balance. The barn has gone through a little hot streak, but overall, the winter has been a struggle. Mystery Giver's Fair Grounds BC was nice, but now comes the big one.

"If he wasn't in the barn," Scherer said, "things would be a lot more difficult."

In the 1990's, Scherer had a steady string of turf stakes horses, like Shires Ende and Minor Wisdom, but his stock thinned. Three autumns ago, the trainer Chris Block approached him about taking turf horses to New Orleans. One was Mystery Giver, who won the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup that season - and the next two.

"The funny thing is, I didn't really know Chris at all except to say hi to him in the morning," Scherer said. "The most amazing thing is that the guy never calls and tells you what to do."

Scherer has come to know Mystery Giver nearly as well as Block does. And he is a hard horse to get to know. Like Skate Away, Mystery Giver is aggressive in his stall. Skate Away also attacks his feed, but Mystery Giver picks at his.

Said Scherer: "After his last race, I talked to Chris and said I'm not worrying about it anymore. That's it. I've worried about how he eats for three years. Some days he eats, some days he doesn't. That's just him."

In fact, Mystery Giver has never looked better. His coat glows; he is alert and eager to exercise. Both he and Skate Away turned in outstanding dirt works for the Muniz, and both appear ready to fire.

"A couple lean years, and people start saying you don't know how to train," Scherer said. "You fall into the trap of thinking you might not know what you're doing. You can lose your confidence. Then you get a good horse like this, and you realize it's just the stock you have."

"Having a real nice horse makes it a little easier to get up in the morning," said Trosclair, as always on the verge of a sly smile. "This is the best horse I've ever had in this kind of race. I wish it were Sunday right now."