10/22/2006 11:00PM

Cal Cup veteran still shines

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Far-fetched as it seems, the Oak Tree Racing Association and the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association will attempt to run the California Cup series of races this coming Saturday without the assuring presence of Full Moon Madness.

This comes pretty close to staging a wedding without the groom, or doing "The Marriage of Figaro" minus the tenor. Full Moon Madness has been a part of the Cal Cup showcase five times, most significantly in October of 2000 when he won the Cal Cup Sprint.

Full Moon Madness also finished second in the Sprint in 2004, and last year he tried the starter handicap version of the Sprint, which in theory is supposed to be an easier task. Tell that to the field blown away by Bordonaro, though, who has since gone on to become one of the favorites for the 2006 Breeders' Cup Sprint.

When last seen on the track in Southern California, Full Moon Madness was being led away from a second-place finish in a $16,000 claimer with a red tag dangling from his halter. Chris O'Dell was the trainer of record, but FMM was soon under the care of O'Dell's friend Leonard Duncan.

It was Duncan's client, attorney Lamonte Isom, who wanted Full Moon Madness. Try as he might, the trainer could not see why not. Duncan and Isom correctly figured that the old boy still had the class to be competitive in sprint stakes at such heartland outposts as Canterbury Downs and Prairie Meadows, as well as the Southwestern circuit running through New Mexico and Arizona. Of course, they could have kept Full Moon Madness in California and risked him in claiming races, but Isom decided he'd rather keep the horse.

Smart move. In nine starts since leaving the coast, Full Moon Madness won the Blaze O'Brien Handicap at Turf Paradise and hit the board in stakes at Sunland Park, Albuquerque and Canterbury. In some of those races, Full Moon Madness raced in the name of another Friend of Leonard, perennial Turf Paradise training champ Troy Bainum.

A close third-place finish in the Wheat City Handicap at Assiniboia Downs, in Manitoba, was Full Moon's last stop. He is currently living the good life at a farm near Phoenix.

"He came out of that race with a fracture of his right front ankle," Duncan said. "We were told to give him 90 days, but we're giving him 120 just to be sure, which means he'll be out until at least December."

It is easy to understand why Duncan thinks Full Moon Madness can be competitive again. He is far from your average 11-year-old Thoroughbred.

"He just absolutely loves to train, and he really enjoys racing," Duncan said. "When I took him back to the track at Canterbury, after the race in Canada, he showed an unwillingness to go to the track, which is totally uncharacteristic of him. Something had to be wrong."

Full Moon Madness certainly deserves such solicitous care. He has won 18 races in 69 starts, with total earnings of $1.2 million spread around at least a half-dozen sets of owners and trainers. He also has been the betting choice 22 times, which means he has contributed generously to the pools from which racetracks derive both purse money and operating funds. Call him Full Moon Mealticket.

Duncan credits Full Moon Madness with more than just a good run of performances. When the time came to take the old horse on the road, Duncan was embroiled in the endgame of a business betrayal that figured to cost him tens of thousands of dollars.

"That horse probably saved my life," Duncan said. "He came along when I was at what I would consider one of the emotionally low points of my life. He's such a phenomenal individual. He knows every trick in the book. And he's just plain fun to be around."

Duncan is currently running Moonlight Farms near Beaumont, east of Los Angeles, which is owned by Michael "Scotty" Duncan - no relation to the trainer.

"When we met about 14 years ago, it turned out both our families were from the same part of the Arkansas Ozarks," Len Duncan said. "So at least we understand each other."

Duncan is giving his full devotion to the Moonlight Farms project, which means his days as a racetrack trainer are done for now. Still, he will remain involved in anything pertaining to Full Moon Madness.

"I wish I could make a stable pony out of him," Duncan said. "He loves the barn, and he loves going to the track. But I'm not sure he would let down enough to be a pony. It might take a year or two just to get that racing out of his system."

Instead, Full Moon Madness will be heading to the place of his birth, the Golden Eagle Farm of Betty Mabee near the north San Diego County town of Ramona. Although Full Moon Madness has earned Golden Eagle a steady tithing of breeder's awards, he actually raced in its colors only once before he was claimed, in June of 1997.

"The people there have extended an open-ended invitation," Duncan said. "When Full Moon Madness retires he will have a place there to live out the remainder of his days, free of charge, compliments of Mrs. Mabee."