05/22/2002 11:00PM

Secrets worth waiting for

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It takes more than a pedigree to win a horse race. Mom and pop can get you only so far. But if ever a filly deserved to be fueled by family ties, Ask Me No Secrets is the one.

Her bloodlines fit the times, especially with the possibility of a Triple Crown in the air. She is a daughter of Seattle Slew and a granddaughter of Secretariat, which would drive some people to wrap her in cotton and keep her under glass for fear of jeopardizing such a gem.

Instead, Ask Me No Secrets will be mixing it up with the big girls on Saturday at Hollywood Park when she faces Azeri and Affluent in the Milady Handicap. A victory would be a mild surprise, but hardly a shock, since Ask Me No Secrets finished a strong third to Summer Colony and Azeri in the La Canada Stakes earlier this year before winning the Oaklawn Breeders' Cup Stakes with ease.

It also would be about time, as far as Earl Shultz is concerned. Racing's eternal wheel of fortune has turned slowly for this retired radiologist who bred Ask Me No Secrets and placed her under the care of Dave Hofmans. The last time his name was attached to a major runner, Ronald Reagan had just set up shop in the White House.

Splendid Spruce won the 1981 Santa Anita Derby for Shultz and partners, then went back to Louisville and split the field in Pleasant Colony's Kentucky Derby. Within the year Splendid Spruce was dead, a victim of colitis.

"I'm only a small player," Shultz said Thursday from his home in Rancho Santa Fe. "But it doesn't seem to matter who you are or how much you spend. This is a very tough and very expensive game. I knew I'd just have to wait my turn. I just didn't think I'd have to wait so long."

There was nary a trace of regret in his voice. In fact, Shultz considers himself among the lucky, especially when it comes to all things relating to Ask Me No Secrets.

Her dam is the 14-year-old Secretariat mare In on the Secret, who spent the first part of her life racing for Ernie Samuel's Sam-Son Farm, one of Canada's top operations. Shultz snapped her up as a broodmare prospect and watched her produce four straight colts before dropping Ask Me No Secrets in 1998.

Basically, In on the Secret has kept Shultz in the business. She had a Seattle Slew colt sell for $600,000 and a Kingmambo colt sell for $400,000. The Kingmambo went on to become Royal Tryst, who finished fifth in this year's Dubai World Cup.

"It seemed like forever, but she finally got a filly," Shultz said. "Ask Me No Secrets was a very pretty foal, and she never had any problems. Never needed stripping. Always correct."

Shultz, 63, is a lifelong fan. He was born in Colorado and raised in suburban Los Angeles - South Gate, to be specific - where he worked nights for an oil and gas company in his younger days. That meant he had to leave Hollywood Park part way through the card, but it didn't keep him from following the best horses in the best races.

"I couldn't afford to do anymore than split bets with friends," Shultz said. "And I can still spend a whole afternoon at Del Mar, never make a bet, and still have the greatest time."

He ended up in north San Diego County, surfing the beaches of Carlsbad with buddies and looking for opportunities. In the early 1970's he began a radiology practice in Escondido that grew to a dozen partners strong at the time of his recent retirement.

Hooking up with Hofmans took almost as long, even though it seemed inevitable.

"I knew a lot of the people he trained for," Shultz said. "We'd go to dinner, and I liked the way he handled himself. Finally, I told him he'd get my next filly. Not long after that I showed him a picture of Ask Me No Secrets as a weanling. I told him, 'Here she is.' "

Shultz had to bide his time. Ask Me No Secrets encountered a series of nagging problems that kept her from the races until October 2001 - three long years after he displayed her photo.

"She's taken the most patience of any horse I've ever owned," Shultz said. "But I appreciate that. Dave wouldn't run her unless she was 100 percent. In other hands, she might have started sooner, but she might not have made it this far."

Ask Me No Secrets missed the Hawthorne Handicap on April 27 with a minor foot injury, according to Shultz, which means she will not have run since March 16.

"The biggest problem is Azeri," Shultz said. "I happen to think she's the best mare in the country. But we've got a good filly, too. And I'm like Dave - I don't like to run just to run.

"For a dinky guy like me, a filly like Ask Me No Secrets is irreplaceable," he added. "I've had a lot of big offers for her, but I've got to keep her. I've got to have something to talk about, don't I?"