01/06/2003 12:00AM

Talking about what's his name

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The phone started ringing before the race was even official. Everyone wanted to know, did they see what they thought they had seen? Was this guy as good as he looked? Can anything in California stop him?

The buzz grew stronger overnight. The next morning, as Ron Ellis made his usual rounds from stable to racetrack and back again, backslappers and bridge-jumpers lined up three deep to tell him exactly what he didn't need to hear.

But there was nothing he could do about it. The spores had been released. Derby fever was airborne. Anyone who witnessed the sixth race Saturday at Santa Anita was running a dangerously high temperature after being exposed to the grand, ambling son of A.P. Indy as he won a six-furlong maiden race by a half-length in 1:10.30.

As they say, it was the way he did it.

Sporting a name that reads like a 10-car pileup, Atswhatimtalknbout is more than simply this week's flavor. Whether he pans out or not, his maiden voyage will be remembered for quite some time, from his virile display as he left the paddock to his balletic display of broken field running to inhale nice horses who were far from stopping. David Flores dismounted, his mouth agape, and uttered the same words that occurred to Ellis.

"I'm glad nobody got in his way."

It was only last Thursday that Ellis was on the line to the racing office, entering his colt for his first competitive experience. He anticipated some confusion, since there are a number of ways to compress "That is what I am talking about" into the 18-character limit imposed by the Jockey Club.

"A-t-s-w-h-a-t-i-m . . ." went the trainer. "No, t-s-w-h- . . ."

It went on like that for awhile, but finally the message was conveyed. After Saturday, no should have trouble with the name again.

"It's funny how he created such a stir," Ellis said Monday morning as the Santa Ana winds blew hot from the east. "There's hardly anybody that I pass who doesn't say something about that horse. I guess we'll have to prepare for the Preakness now, because apparently we've already won the Derby."

Ellis is allowed his sardonic take on Derby hype. He has been training long enough to know that heartbreak can await any morning, even when horses get the very best of care - and Ellis has few peers in that regard.

But taking a colt to the Kentucky Derby is another thing altogether. Ellis has been to the Derby exactly once, as a spectator, and that was in 2002, at the age of 42. That did not stop him from compiling an admirable record with stakes horses through the years, winning such significant races as the Apple Blossom, the Genuine Risk, the Santa Margarita, the Vanity, the Go for Wand, and the Goodwood, among many others.

On top of that, if Atswhatimtalknbout makes it to Churchill Downs, Ellis already has an interpreter on staff. His wife, the former model and diehard horseplayer Amy McGee, is a Louisville native whose Kentucky roots run deeper than the deepest blue grass. Her brother Paul is among Churchill's most successful trainers, and her brother Marty writes for Daily Racing Form. Chances are, the colt's name has come up in family dinner conversation.

Of course, all that is beside the point. It will be Ellis's job to block out the noise and focus on his colt, because there is still a lot to be done. Historically, Derby winners don't make their racing debuts on Jan. 4.

"We've seen a lot of good-looking horses fall by the wayside through the years," Ellis said. "We're going to need some luck along the way, especially getting a little bit later start. I would have rather he did this two months ago."

So where has he been since last February, when Wayne Hughes bought him for $900,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Calder auction of 2-year-olds?

"He's a big horse," Ellis replied. "Really big - tall and long. I'd say 16-3, about as tall as you'd want him to get. He hasn't grown a whole lot more. It's a good thing he's not a huge, heavy-bodied horse, otherwise he'd be in serious trouble.

"He was up to three-quarters of a mile and ready to run at Del Mar when he bucked his shins," the trainer went on. "I was actually kind of surprised he got that far before something happened."

By the time Hughes and his group had left the sale in Miami, the name for his new colt was percolating. Bob Feld, a friend and advisor, reminded everyone that every time a horse hinted at Derby dreams, the reaction was the same: "Atswhatimtalknbout." If this one can deliver, no one will sweat the spelling or the punctuation.

Ellis said he hopes to run the colt once a month between now and the Derby. Then an alternative came to mind.

"You know, maybe I ought to just train him up to the Derby," he said, barely keeping a straight face. "Based on what I've heard, people would give him a chance. And that way at least I know I'd get there."