11/14/2001 1:00AM

Semper fi in claiming game


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - More than two weeks have passed, and the place has started to quiet down. We have apologized to our neighbors in Arizona and Baja California. They understand. See, it's not every day that Nick Hines wins a $50,000 stakes race, and when it happened, well, things got a little out of hand.

What do you expect from a kid who was raised in a petting zoo?

The victory by As We Know It in the California Cup Starter Handicap at Santa Anita on the afternoon of Nov. 3 was duly noted by the jittery folks who man the seismographs at nearby Cal Tech in Pasadena. Built like a lineman, with a personality to match, Hines was collecting friends under both arms and praising the skies as he hurled himself through the stands to greet his horse.

"If you asked me what happened, I truly couldn't tell you," Hines said two weeks later, in the quiet of his Hollywood Park barn. "I wish I could, but I can't. I told everyone he would win that race. And then he did. I was in awe."

At the age of 31, Hines is already a card-carrying racetrack character. They call him "Sarge," both frontside and back, and the name fits like an eight-ounce glove, as long as the image that comes to mind is John Wayne as the no-nonsense noncom in "Sands of Iwo Jima." Bilko he's not.

His barn colors are red, white, and blue - stars and stripes forever. As You Know It left the winner's circle after the Cal Cup wearing a gold-fringed American flag for a cooler, and wore it well. Even the tracks are getting hip to the Hines vibe. Last Sunday, as Tizmania carried his colors out for the seventh, the P.A. system played "The Ballad of the Green Berets," by Sgt. Barry Sadler. A Hines request?

"No," he said with a grin. "But it sounds pretty good."

Don't think for a minute, though, that Hines is an overnight patriot. He was waving the flag long before 9-11.

"Whatever good there is in me was put there by my father," Hines said, then he reached into his office desk drawer and produced a laminated copy of the Las Vegas Sun Magazine cover story from the issue of Dec. 13, 1981. "That's my dad."

His father was Mike Hines - Notre Dame All-American, U.S. Marine, respected attorney, and chairman of the Nevada State Racing Commission back when the sport had a toehold in Las Vegas.

Nick Hines and his two brothers were raised on a 15-acre spread just a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. In addition to Thoroughbreds, there were monkeys, goats, cows, ostrich, emu, sheep, peacocks, two black bears, and a kangaroo.

But it was racehorses Mike Hines loved, and he did well enough to leave Nick with a lifelong passion. Mike's best horse was Good Lord, a bargain New Zealand yearling who became a star down under before coming to California and winning the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar.

Good Lord was 8 when he won the Read, and Nick Hines was 9. Six years later, Mike Hines was dead, at the age of 65. It didn't take a genius to predict that young Nick would end up at the racetrack, which he did, most productively as assistant to Craig Dollase for 2 1/2 years before going on his own.

Now Hines has become a trainer to watch in the West Coast training ranks. He's doing it the hard way, the old-fashioned way, claiming old battlers, moving them up, playing the world's toughest kind of poker. "You grow up in Vegas," Hines said, "you learn to play."

A tour of his stable is like a casting call for another "Dirty Dozen" remake. One stall contains the only known Polish-bred racehorse in American competition. "Proud to have him," said Hines, admiring the proportions of the huge, dark gelding. In another stall there was a recent claim "with more problems than a third world country." Over there was an old pro who required not much more than "air in his tires, turn the switch on."

He rolls the dice, claims a horse, and "sometimes you hit a home run," as Hines puts it. Of course, it's never that simple. When Hines is not in a stall, he's on his cell phone, bringing an owner up to date on the next race, the last race, the good news and the bad.

"I've got about 20 horses now, although a few of them need to be running in a different area code," Hines said. "The ideal number is 16. A trainer can't give any more than that the individual attention they deserve. You get too many horses, and you're running a factory."

If Hines has a few more like As We Know It, he might need to up his quota. As We Know It is a 5-year-old son of Cutlass Reality, out of the stakes winning Giggling Girl, who was claimed for $10,000 in January. He has won five of six for Hines and more than $100,000.

"He was well-mannered when I got him," Hines said. "But now, he's acting like he's too intelligent for all this. His training, his work ethic - everything says class. Only problem is, I had a nightmare last night that I ran him back after that last race and got him beat."

Won't happen, though, as long as Sarge is in charge.