Atswhatimtalknbout putting it together

Win today in California would land colt in middle of Kentucky Derby picture

Horse Racing

April 05, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Bob Baffert says the same thing every spring: Until 3-year-olds start racing at 1 1/8 miles, you can't tell anything about their chances in the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles. Know what he's talking about?

He's talking about the major stakes today and next weekend that will determine who graduates to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby in four weeks and who starts turning up in $100,000 races or trying the turf.

A three-time winner of the Derby, Baffert entered three horses in the Santa Anita Derby today at Santa Anita Park. The $750,000 stakes at 1 1/8 miles is the premier Derby prep out West. The winner could emerge as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby if Empire Maker, the consensus No. 1 contender at the moment, falters in the Wood Memorial Stakes next Saturday at Aqueduct.

The Santa Anita Derby is the deepest, most intriguing Kentucky Derby prep of the season. Six or seven of the 10 entrants could play significant roles at Churchill Downs. But most eyes will be watching for one brown blur streaking down the Santa Anita homestretch: Atswhatimtalknbout.

The colt with the curious name has raced only four times and hasn't even won a stakes, but he's the 9-5 morning-line favorite based on his powerful finishes at shorter distances. His "furious outside rally," as the chart-callers described it, fell a nose short in the San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles three weeks ago at Santa Anita.

Ron Ellis, trainer of Atswhatimtalknbout, acknowledges that his A.P. Indy colt started his march to the Kentucky Derby at a disadvantage, not having raced as a 2-year-old. The large colt encountered sore shins, and Ellis didn't rush him, he said.

"If you've watched his races, you can really see a horse with a tremendous amount of ability, and each race he's learning more and more what it's about," Ellis said. "He's really standing out with the ability he has. People know it's just a matter of time and his learning how to put it all together."

Ever since surging from 10th in the stretch to win his first race (six furlongs, Jan. 4), Atswhatimtalknbout has been considered a top Derby prospect and received an inordinate amount of publicity. That increased last month when Hollywood producers, including Steven Spielberg, bought 10 percent of the horse.

The producers are affiliated with Seabiscuit, the film about the thoroughbred hero of the 1930s scheduled for release this summer. Former jockey Chris McCarron, a friend of Ellis' who still breezes the colt, and jockey Gary Stevens, who rides Buddy Gil, played jockeys in the film. The executives became smitten with horse racing and bought a share of Atswhatimtalknbout.

Ellis says the name arose from a dinner conversation a year earlier after buying the horse at auction. All anyone could talk about was the colt and how good he looked, as in, Ellis said, "Now that's the way a horse should look. That's what I'm talking about."

Other potential standouts in the Santa Anita Derby are Buddy Gil at 5-2, Ocean Terrace at 6-1, Ministers Wild Cat at 10-1 and the Baffert threesome of Kafwain at 4-1, Domestic Domestic at 15-1 and Indian Express at 30-1. Mark Johnston, the former Marylander who started riding last weekend in California, has the mount on Iron Lad at 50-1.

Two Maryland 3-year-olds, Cherokee's Boy and Foufa's Warrior, will compete in the $500,000 Illinois Derby, also at 1 1/8 miles, today at Hawthorne. Their connections are eyeing the Preakness, not the Kentucky Derby.

The Illinois Derby and Santa Anita Derby will be televised on ESPN in a one-hour broadcast beginning at 5 p.m.

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