11/20/2003 1:00AM

In truth, he's crazy like a fox

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Alert the peasants. Light the torches, and get the children out of the woods. The Mad Genius has left his castle in Maryland, and is wandering about the land, with sightings as far afield as the stables of Hollywood Park.

Stay on guard. The Mad Genius is a master of disguise. He may appear as a tall, pleasant gent with a boyish shock of salt-and-pepper hair and a charming, polite demeanor. He might engage the unsuspecting bystander in bright, witty banter, replete with sly cultural references and a self-deprecating sense of humor. But don't be fooled. He's mad, do you hear? Mad!

Nicknames are tough to live down, especially when they are thickly applied by a doting media. Thoroughbred trainer Michael Dickinson gets saddled with Mad Genius - or "EmGee" as he's known on the street - because he wins races in ways not readily explained by conventional means. As nicknames go, it's better than Stinky.

To acquire mad genius status, Dickinson has borrowed generously from such role models as Charlie Whittingham, Don Quixote, and Sherlock Holmes. It was Holmes who said, at one point in "A Study in Scarlet," that "One's ideas must be as broad as nature if they are to interpret nature." He could have been quoting Dickinson.

This is the same Michael Dickinson who at various times has tilted at such formidable windmills as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the Breeders' Cup, and the West Virginia Racing Commission. He has been known to don a pair of ladies heels and walk a turf course, testing for penetration. He will diagram a race for a jockey, furlong by furlong, or fax them a pre-race evaluation of their chances, with columns listing positives and negatives.

He is also deadly frank when it comes to his chances. Sometimes, all he can muster under the plus column is something like: "He's a Thoroughbred, and he's sound."

Like Holmes, Dickinson mixes a distracted, British eccentricity with a feverish work ethic that allows precious little time for trivialities. There is no such thing as a casual conversation with Michael Dickinson. His obsession is divine, however, for he pours his heart and soul into his Tapeta Farm training center, on the northern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where Dickinson has provided himself with the luxury of a controlled environment. At 200-acre Tapeta, it is Michael Dickinson who decides when to train, how hard to train, and over which of several surfaces to do that training.

"There are two things we can't do, though," Dickinson said. "We can't ever make a slow horse into a faster one. And we can't eliminate injuries, although I think we get less than other people. In fact I know we do, because we can make it with horses that wouldn't make it any other way."

Dickinson earned his nickname as a big-race miracle worker with the likes of Da Hoss, Cetawayo, and Amerique, horses who disappeared into some kind of equine witness relocation program, only to emerge years later at the top of their game.

The Mad Genius was at it again last weekend, winning the De Francis Memorial at Laurel with the rarely sighted A Huevo, whose image had adorned milk cartons up and down the Eastern seaboard. Just for kicks, Dickinson also won the Laurel Futurity with Tapit, a more conventionally campaigned 2-year-old who was making his second start.

But hold on. Dickinson's 2003 stats, through last Sunday showed a record of 35 wins from 145 starts. Another 45 starters hit the board, but can a Mad Genius be satisfied losing 110 races?

"The first six months it was dreadful," Dickinson said. "It was a combination of bad weather, bad luck, and bad training. You've always got to look in the mirror."

Dickinson is on a roll these days, and he is at Hollywood Park this week with his grass horse Bowman Mill, a 5-year-old son of Kris S. who will run on Saturday in the $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. In 10 races for Dr. John Chandler, Bowman Mill has never run a bad one, while winning four and finishing second three times over seven different grass courses. He is Cetawayo's younger brother.

This is Bowman Mill's second visit to Southern California. He was at Hollywood Park two years ago, during a wet and dreary November, intent on running in the Hollywood Derby. Dickinson, however, was not completely satisfied with the condition of the Hollywood turf. It didn't take a genius - mad or otherwise - to figure out that the going was difficult. After walking the course, and consulting with Chandler, the trainer scratched his horse, turning his back on a $500,000 purse. Now they are back and counting on firm ground.

"We've got a lot left to prove," Dickinson said. "We won in soft going in Canada, but that is a long way from a Grade 1 race in California."

Still, strange and wonderful things can happen when a horse is prepared by someone called the Mad Genius.

"Well, they're only half right," Dickinson said. "And you and I know which half."