01/10/2003 12:00AM

Ten Most Wanted earns spot on Derby list

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PHOENIX - It's quite possible we saw this year's Kentucky Derby winner last weekend at Santa Anita.

Only trouble is, I'm not sure which one of two impressive 3-year-olds fits the bill, as both Atswhatimtalknbout and Ten Most Wanted have plenty going for them:

* Both are bred to handle the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance. Atswhatimtalknbout is a son of A.P. Indy, the Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic winner who was also Horse of the Year. Ten Most Wanted is a son of multiple Grade 1 stakes winner Deputy Commander, who won the Travers and Super Derby, and was second to Skip Away in the BC Classic).

* Both have top trainers who know how to prepare and deal with top-class runners. Ron Ellis trains Atswhatimtalknbout, and he has worked with such stars as Exotic Wood, Twice the Vice, and Key Phrase. Wally Dollase trains Ten Most Wanted. He has trained such top-class runners as Good Journey, Jewel Princess, and Algenib, as well as Ten Most Wanted's sire, Deputy Commander.

* Both are big, strapping colts who act as though they will be more comfortable and even better with more ground to cover.

* And finally, both were absolutely dazzling last weekend, not only winning, but doing so in a style that oozed class and potential.

The rally that carried Atswhatimtalknbout from 10th place to the lead in the final quarter-mile may be a preview of what's to come for the colt, owned by B. Wayne Hughes.

Making his debut, Atswhatimtalknbout appeared hopelessly beaten when the field of 11 was on the final turn, but he accelerated for a half-length win over Buckland Manor. The final time was 1:10.30 and he received a Beyer Speed Figure of 86.

"I think he did that off talent and class," Ellis said of the maiden win. "I didn't give him much chance at the quarter pole. He doesn't want any part of six furlongs. If we can get him going two turns, he'll be impressive."

Hughes bought Atswhatimtalknbout for $900,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-olds in training sale last February. Both owner and trainer were impressed when Atswhatimtalknbout worked a furlong in 10.20 seconds before the sale.

"For a horse of his size, it was impressive," Ellis said.

Last summer, Atswhatimtalknbout had progressed up to six furlongs in his workouts but missed the Del Mar meet because of sore shins. The setback postponed his career debut until Saturday but didn't discourage Ellis.

"This is the earliest he should be running anyway," Ellis said.

Atswhatimtalknbout will stretch to two turns against allowance company for his next start. Considering his powerful debut finish and the way he galloped out past the wire, the colt should appreciate longer distances. In the allowance, he is likely to face Ten Most Wanted, who earned a 74 Beyer winning a two-turn maiden race last Sunday.

Ten Most Wanted was making his second start, having finished second in his career debut on Nov. 29, also in a route race.

Ten Most Wanted ran a mile in 1:38.08, cruising home eight lengths in front of pacesetter Santa Fe Slew. In early stretch, jockey Kent Desormeaux had to keep Ten Most Wanted focused.

"He has no idea what he's doing out there," Dollase said. "I saw a big improvement from his first race. This time, he was in a good position and when he was asked he picked it up. He's a special horse. Maybe we'll get lucky."

Luck may have something to do with it, but it's nice to start with a strong hand, and Dollase surely has that. Odds are Ten Most Wanted and Atswhatimtalknbout will meet at the end of this month or in early February.

If I had to favor one over the other right now, it would be to Ten Most Wanted. Sure, his maiden win wasn't quite as brilliant or dazzling as Atswhatimtalknbout's, but there are a couple other big factors in his favor. First, his Jan. 5 run was the second time Ten Most Wanted raced at a route. Atswhatimtalknbout has yet to try two turns. He's likely to get his chance in a couple of weeks, but he's giving away significant seasoning and conditioning to Ten Most Wanted, much less horses such as Vindication, Toccet, Kafwain, and Added Edge.

Secondly, while Atswhatimtalknbout may have shown more brilliance last weekend, it's not necessarily brilliance that wins the Derby. Many brilliant runners, such as Afternoon Deelites and Holy Bull, have lost the Derby. The Derby is usually won by a grinder (Go for Gin, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone, Charismatic) or sustained speed (Winning Colors, Spend a Buck, War Emblem). Occasionally the brilliant (Fusaichi Pegasus) will come through, but that's more the exception than the rule.

Besides, all you have to do is listen to trainer Ellis and note some hesitancy regarding the ranking of Atswhatimtalknbout: While Atswhatimtalknbout is the current star, Ellis notes that. Popularize, an unraced 3-year-old by Pulpit in his barn, has shown a world of ability in his workouts.

If you're looking towards the future books, you are certainly aware Atswhatimtalknbout is all the rage and likely to be an underlaid price, while Ten Most Wanted's win may get lost in the shuffle with his odds quite palatable.