04/03/2003 12:00AM

A rare big horse who can really fly

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ARCADIA, Cal. - The road to the spring classics is anything but smooth. Even the great ones take their lumps, as Secretariat did in the Wood Memorial of 1973. The handicappers chorus sang that old refrain about Bold Rulers being unable to stay 1 1/4 miles and then the Red Horse came back to win the Kentucky Derby in track-record time.

Atswhatimtalknbout was an impressive winner here at Santa Anita in mid-February and was promptly hailed as a top prospect for the classics. He was upset by Buddy Gil in the subsequent San Felipe but his popularity remains high and he is expected to go off a strong favorite in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

"We took him back farther than usual in the San Felipe," trainer Ron Ellis said at trackside. "He comes from off the pace, and with major races coming up, we wanted to see how he'd handle himself from far back. He ran a big race, finished full of run, and just missed by a nose. I think you will see an improvement on Saturday."

Ellis has believed in Atswhatimtalknbout from the beginning and has had few regrets.

A big A.P. Indy colt, Atswhatimtalknbout worked sensationally before the Calder sale of 2-year-olds last year and Ellis got him for $900,000 on behalf of B. Wayne Hughes. Ellis was captivated by his speed despite his size. It's the rare big horse who can fly. One who comes to mind is Forego.

Atswhatimtalknbout made steady progress last summer and breezed six furlongs in July. Sore shins sent him to the sidelines. They were pin-fired and Ellis gave him extra time because of his size. He made his debut on Jan. 4, was off slowly but came on in electrifying fashion and won like a horse with a future.

"He'll be running against a field of good, solid prospects like Buddy Gil and the undefeated Ocean Terrace," Ellis said. "Kafwain is very talented and Ministers Wild Cat shows considerable promise. But Atswhatimtalknbout has trained up to the race beautifully and we expect him to run well."

Ellis has been training horses for 23 years. A resident of the San Fernando Valley, he was invited by a neighbor for an afternoon at the track and liked what he saw.

He walked hots for trainer Larry Sterling at a time when Santa Anita Handicap winner Vigors was in the barn and took out a trainer's license when he turned 20. Among his first horses was To B. or Not, who won eight stakes and helped get Ellis's career off to a grand start.

Ellis consistently comes up with attractive horses. Twice the Vice, who beat Serena's Song in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, was one. Exotic Wood, who flew to Saratoga and won the Go for Wand Stakes, was another. But for potential, Atswhatimtalknbout is something special, particularly since Steven Spielberg and several of the "Seabiscuit" principals were invited by Hughes to join the ownership team.

"I always said I didn't want to go to the Kentucky Derby until I had a horse in the race," Hughes said the other day. "After 20 years I still

hadn't been to Churchill Downs, and so last spring, when we ran a horse in the Woodford Reserve Handicap on Derby Day, I took advantage of the opportunity to attend. Now I may have a chance to get there with a horse."