11/21/2001 1:00AM

McCulloch made of tough stuff


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Less than 18 months ago, the future looked very bleak indeed for trainer Scotty McCulloch.

"I was on my death bed," said McCulloch, 47, who had been admitted to the hospital with severe liver problems. "It was June 2 - I remember the date. They told me I wouldn't live to see the next day."

McCulloch, however, was not about to go gentle into that good night.

"I was out in 10 days," he said, "and I was back at work the 11th day."

But shortly after his return to the racetrack, owner Herbert Chambers, for whom he had worked as a private trainer since 1997, informed McCulloch he was making a change and the trainer found himself at loose ends.

"I had one horse of my own," said McCulloch. "I kind of took it easy, and tried to get healthy again."

Things did not go well on the business front, however, as the horse, a 2-year-old, did not make it to the races.

"It was downhill after downhill," said the trainer, "until Mr. Sepiashvili came along."

That opportunity knocked for McCulloch in October when David Sepiashvili, proprietor of Goldmart Farm, offered him a job as his private trainer.

McCulloch now has 15 horses here, with another 25 at Goldmart Farm in nearby Nobleton.

And on Saturday, McCulloch will be looking to give the outfit its biggest win of the year when Ruff Tuff Stuff runs in the $125,125 Sir Barton at Woodbine.

Ruff Tuff Stuff will be making his stakes debut in the Sir Barton, a 1 1/16-mile race for Ontario-sired 3-year-old colts and geldings. .

"He just seems to be getting better as a 3-year-old," said McCulloch, who sent out Ruff Tuff Stuff to win at first asking last October but then watched him finish sixth in his only other start at 2.

"He just seems to be filling out to his full maturity; he's really rounding out to be a nice-looking individual."

Ruff Tuff Stuff took a while to come around this year and was competing at the $25,000 claiming level when he recorded his second career victory here Sept. 15. And the gelding has continued to display good form since stretching out to 1 1/16 miles, winning for $32,000 and then running second for $62,500 in his last two starts.

"We had it set that he was a six-and-a-half furlong, seven-furlong horse," said McCulloch. "Then we decided to try him at two turns, and he likes that.

"He can relax a little more, feel a little more comfortable. It's made him a better horse."

While McCulloch recognizes that Ruff Tuff Stuff may not measure up to Sir Barton favorite Devil Valentine, he still sees the stakes as a viable proposition.

"Off his last race, he seems to be on the improve," said the trainer. "We were going to go for a 'nonwinners-other-than', but I thought I'd take a shot. I knew it was going to be a short field, at the end of the year."

McCulloch certainly was correct on that count, as only four of the nine nominees were entered for the Sir Barton.

Estrada may be something special

While McCulloch's focus currently is on Ruff Tuff Stuff, the apple of his eye still is Estrada.

"She is a doll," said McCulloch.

A 2-year-old filly who was purchased at the local open yearling sale for $13,000, Estrada is by Mutakddim, who is a son of Seeking the Gold. She is the first foal of out of Miss Taomina, who earned exactly zero while beaten a total of almost 90 lengths in five career starts in the maiden claiming ranks.

"I was trying to get her ready for the yearling sales stakes," said McCulloch, with reference to the Sept. 3 Muskoka, "but she bucked shins the week before. So I stopped on her, and got her ready again."

Estrada made no mistakes when she did debut here Oct. 25, romping to a five-length win in a five-furlong maiden special which went as the day's fifth race. Her biggest nemesis there almost turned out to be the weather, as high winds forced the cancellation of the balance of the card.

"The day we ran her I've never been so sure of a horse in my life," said McCulloch. "The filly just amazed me. I've been around some nice horses, some super horses - you've got to be around one to know one. She is special."

Estrada made her second and last appearance of the season in the Nov. 11 Glorious Song, a seven-furlong race in which she finished a closing third.

"She ran into a deep, dead, tiring rail," said McCulloch. "She was shuffled down there, and stuck there. And she bucked her shins again but she was still closing, through the pain and everything."

Estrada has gone to the farm and McCulloch already is looking at the Star Shoot Stakes, a six-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies which is run early in the meeting, as her starting point for 2002.

"I think, with the winter, she's going to grow into a really lovely filly," said the trainer. "She could be a pretty serious horse next year."

* A funeral mass will be held for trainer Joe Attard at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Patrick's Church, 11873 Gore Road. Visitation was scheduled from 2. to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday at the Ward Funeral Home, Brampton Chapel, 52 Main Street South (Highway 10).