12/21/2002 12:00AM

Passion for game lifts Sellers above the pain

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NEW ORLEANS - Shane Sellers's last Fair Grounds meet ended in disaster. It was here, in a mishap during the warm-up period before a race two years ago, that Sellers suffered the knee injury that nearly ended his career.

But after returning from his second retirement this past fall at Churchill Downs, Sellers is back at Fair Grounds, and the positive signals he gave during the first phase of his comeback have not abated. Through Thursday's racing here, Sellers had won with 9 of 45 mounts, placing him in a tie for fourth place in the rider standings here. The top three Fair Grounds riders all have at least 30 more mounts than Sellers.

Beyond raw statistics, Sellers looks comfortable in races, and people close to him say he appears to be fully engaged with his work again.

"If I wasn't attached to it, I wouldn't have gone through what I went through," Sellers said. "Not if I didn't have the passion for the game."

Sellers failed to win Thursday, but few of his horses showed much life. He gave Bushy Park a good trip in the seventh race, where he finished second. Recognizing the inside-speed biased nature of the Fair Grounds surface after a rainstorm, Sellers sent his mount straight to the front.

"I think he's been riding beautifully," said Bushy Park's trainer, David Carroll. "He's always been a smart rider, good at getting horses into position. He's had these attributes all along, but the biggest thing right now is his attitude. He genuinely seems happy to be out there."

Sellers thinks horsemen have been slow to embrace his comeback, preferring to wait and see how he progresses. "I don't have a whole lot of business right now," Sellers said. "I think there still are a lot of people sitting back and saying, 'How is he going to do?' "

As for Sellers's injured knee - it hurts. "I'm always going to have pain," Sellers said. "That's just reality. But I'm still glad I made the choice that I made."

Sellers will leave town Saturday to ride Crackajack for trainer Kenny McPeek in the Pete Axthelm Stakes at Calder. Sellers said he has been taken off the McPeek-trained Ten Cents a Shine, whom he rode in an impressive second-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

"It's my first real setback," Sellers said. "But I'll just have to go out and get a better one."

Some slump

Can a 24-percent trainer be dismayed at a lack of success? If it is Fair Grounds and the trainer is Tom Amoss, the answer is yes.

Amoss started the Fair Grounds meet last year hitting at close to

50 percent for the first six weeks of the meet. This year, he has been plagued by a string of seconds and thirds, and though his 8 wins from 33 starters is good for second place in the standings, Steve Asmussen already has racked up 15 wins here.

"I think myself, and the guys in the barn, the way we grade the meet we'd call it a disappointment," Amoss said.

Amoss thinks the competition this meet is stronger than last year, not that his horses are performing at a lower level. "With some of the people you're going against, it's tougher," he said. "In particular, Wayne Catalano. Right now, I'm hoping some of the seconds and thirds will turn into wins."

Amoss also is looking forward to the end of this month, when a 2-year-old filly, Wholetthebullout, is scheduled to make her career debut.

Said Amoss, "You hate to get too excited about young horses, but from day one she's reminded me of [Grade 1 winner] Heritage of Gold."

Looking out for No. 10

It's just a $35,000 claimer, but keep an eye on Sunday's seventh race. In it, the 6-year-old gelding Machine to Tower goes for his 10th win of the year. For many horses, that's a productive career.

"We've had nothing but luck with this horse," said trainer Keith Dickey, whose owner Michael Silveri claimed Machine to Tower for $20,000 in July at Monmouth. Since then, Machine to Tower has won 3 of 4 starts, finishing second in his lone loss.

The funny thing is, Machine to Tower is not one of those fiercely competitive racehorses who wins on will. "When he makes the lead, he puts his feet in the ground," Dickey said. "You can't let him get to the front too soon."

Machine to Tower twice has won off-the-turf races for Dickey, and the stable is hoping for rain again Sunday, since Machine to Tower was entered for grass. Don't be surprised if luck is on his side.