12/06/2006 1:00AM

All hail veteran Meteor Storm


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Those who have problems with early Thoroughbred retirements and the lack of continuity in the ranks of racing's better animals should have no quarrel with Meteor Storm. At the age of 7 and soon to be 8, he's coming back for more.

Back to California, that is, where his fortunes first soared in the spring of 2004. That's when he was in the kind of form it takes to win the San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita Park, then repeat the process in the Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park.

In the Manhattan, Meteor Storm took his bows as the nation's leading distance horse on turf before an audience of 120,139, then surrendered the stage to Smarty Jones for his Triple Crown run in the Belmont Stakes. History will show that Meteor Storm had a better day.

If it seems like a long time ago, it was, especially since the breeding world is only a month or so away from the arrival of the first foals sired by Smarty Jones. Meanwhile, his testicles intact, Meteor Storm is still playing the game, training hard, and acting as if he's ready to reclaim a place at the head table in Saturday's $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup.

At 1 1/2 miles on firm ground, the Turf Cup would seem to be right up Meteor Storm's alley. But time is cruel, and the cold facts of the record reveal that the old fellow has not won a race since the McKnight Handicap at Calder a year ago, and before that the '04 Manhattan, although there have been some noble losing performances along the way.

His trainer, Wally Dollase, cringes a little when he recalls that he and his wife, Cincy, celebrated the McKnight with a holiday in the Carribean, while Meteor Storm went under the knife. In truth, the trainer was probably in worse shape than the horse, who was diagnosed after the McKnight with a minor ankle chip (right front) that did not involve the joint. It is only fair to note that Dollase's vacation was over long before Meteor Storm went back to work.

When he did, late last summer, Dollase produced Meteor Storm for the one-mile Kelso at Belmont and then the Canadian International at Woodbine. The horse was embarrassed in neither, and there were mitigating circumstances. Dollase, true to his license, prefers to call them excuses.

"He's run a good mile before [a close fourth in the 2005 Kilroe at Santa Anita], but he's a lot happier at a mile and a half," Dollase said. "As for Canada, the ground was pretty soft [1 1/2 miles in 2:37.34], and he likes it firm, which is what he'll get on Saturday."

He will also get a mix of local and imported runners that includes T.oH. Approval, Runaway Dancer, Boboman, Artiste Royal, Cosmonaut, Baby First, and Symphony Syd - all of them worthy on their day, but probably not in the league of such recent Meteor Storm rivals as Ashkal Way, Go Deputy, and Collier Hill.

Still, age takes its awful toll, and horses approaching the age of 8 have absorbed a lot of training miles. Dollase notes that Meteor Storm's recent moves over the Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park have been especially encouraging.

"These older horses probably have got some arthritis we don't even know about," Dollase said. "He's loved the surface. There's a lot of bounce to it, and that makes it even easier on him. A lot of horses - and usually the good ones - tend to do more than they should in training. A routine of galloping strong on a hard track can really take its toll, so the easier the surface is on them, the better. This guy is a smart horse, and he tries to take care of himself. Right now he's a happy camper."

Meteor Storm came into this world as a Juddmonte Farm baby, bred in England, trained in France, and destined for great things. His dam, Hunt the Sun, had two full brothers, named Raintrap (winner of the 1996 San Juan Capistrano) and Sunshack, who finished second in the San Juan and two other major California grass events.

Alas, Meteor Storm ended up a second-stringer, and was eventually consigned to a Tattersalls racing-age sale in the autumn of 2002, after only five starts as a 3-year-old. Dollase snapped him up for his Horizon Stable syndicate for about $180,000. More than $1.4 million in earnings later, the Storm is still churning.

The oldest winner of the Turf Cup was, not surprisingly, the grand gelding John Henry, who was 8 when he turned the tables on the French filly Zalataia to take the prize in 1983. A smattering of 7-year-olds have come close, with Bonapartiste, Awad, Mashkour, and Yankee Affair finishing second. But let's face it. As a stallion, it is a shock that Meteor Storm is still around.

"It's because he's a grass horse and a distance horse," Dollase said. "Nobody seems to be interested in those kind of horses as stallions. We had some people interested in buying him, but the deal wasn't right, so we decided to go ahead and race him. There is good money to run for, and a horse like him stays reasonably sound, not going as hard and punishing himself.

"We appreciate him every time he hits the racetrack," Dollase added. "I'd love to run him in the San Juan Capistrano again, and after that we'll probably retire him, since there's been some interest from South Africa, and their breeding starts in July. But let's enjoy this weekend first."