12/05/2002 12:00AM

California's Old Man River


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - His name might sound like a guys' magazine, or a website that requires parental control. In fact, Men's Exclusive is nothing less than a proud California institution, nearly 10 years old and still going strong enough to lead the field at Hollywood Park on Saturday, when he tries for his third straight victory in the Vernon O. Underwood Handicap.

Oh yes, and he was also reared next door to a nudist camp.

Men's Exclusive was born, raised, and gets his periodic R&R at the Heavenly Acres Farm of Gene and Doris Reed, located about 11 miles south of the town of Corona, Calif. To get to Heavenly Acres, you take the same road that leads to the Glen Eden Sun Club, where, for a modest membership fee, one can "experience the carefree pleasure of a natural holiday." Or so says the brochure.

The Reeds bought their 127 acres in 1957. The sun worshippers arrived in 1963.

"We didn't like it at first," confessed Doris Reed. "But now we're grateful they're there. If it wasn't for them, there would be nothing but houses back in here. We've gotten used to being very secluded. I can sit here and look back through the fields, to where we have a nice trail, and it's just lovely."

Doris Reed was born in Minnesota and Gene came from West Virginia, but like many people on the move in the 1930's, they ended up in California. When they met, she was working for Maxwell House Coffee at the offices of General Foods in downtown Los Angeles. He was going to a trade school in Glendale and working as a tool and die maker. They were introduced by friends in a local tavern.

"I don't know if it was love at first sight," Doris said. "But it didn't take us long. On our first date we went down to Caliente Racetrack."

That cinched it. The Reeds were married on June 24, 1941, which just happened to be Gene Reed's 21st birthday. Sixty-one years later, they will be heading back to the races again on Saturday to watch their pride and joy.

Men's Exclusive will be making the 40th start of a career that has taken him all over the world, under the guidance of trainer Wesley Ward.

"He always gives a good account of himself, and he always seems to run well at Hollywood Park," Gene Reed said. "He's just an all-around good horse."

The record bears him out. Among his 10 victories, in a record dating back to his debut in October 1995, Men's Exclusive has won six stakes and $826,000. It is also very likely that the old boy is the only California-bred horse to have competed twice in Dubai, as well as Japan, Iowa, New York, and Fresno in a single lifetime.

Because of Men's Exclusive, the Reeds have collected trophies for such popular California events as the Palos Verdes Handicap and the Los Angeles Handicap, along with his two Underwoods. The richest payday of his career came in the 2001 Golden Shaheen in Dubai, when he finished second in the $2 million sprint to fellow California traveler Caller One.

While racing through parts of eight straight seasons, the only thing that has kept Men's Exclusive from a more productive career has been his tender feet. Ward must keep the horse shod in glue-on racing plates, and when that does not work Men's Exclusive heads back home to grow some fresh and healthy hoof.

"I'm a firm believer that you can't give a horse too much time," Gene Reed said. "Whenever he needs it, he gets it. That might be why he's got knees and ankles like a yearling."

Reed remembers very well the youthful version of Men's Exclusive, a class act from the start.

"Wesley said he'd break him for nothing," Reed said. "I told him that didn't make any difference. I wanted it done right. He had him a week, then called me up. He told me I could bring my grandson over and ride this baby.

"So he put my grandson up there, and the horse just walked around with his head down. Never made a move."

Young Dustin Katz was 13 at the time. Now he is 21 and off to college in northern California, while Men's Exclusive keeps rolling along. His task on Saturday in the Underwood will not be as formidable as in the past, when he met such quality opposition as Caller One and Lexicon. But, Men's Exclusive is about to turn 10, and the Reeds know every chance may be his last.

"It kind of depends on him, don't you think?" Doris Reed said. "To look at him, he doesn't look his age. But if there was anything wrong with that horse, my man would bring him right home.

"I hope he does good," she added, "and I pray that he comes out of the race 100 percent. That's what I say to him every time: I don't care if you win, baby, just come back all right. Because you know he'll give you his best."