11/28/2006 1:00AM

Declan's Moon back with a bullet


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Declan's Moon won the first five starts of his career, the first four of which brought him an Eclipse Award. The first time he lost, he was beaten by a nose. In his last start, he lost by 24 lengths. For a horse known for his repeated excellence, it was obvious something was amiss.

A lung infection was discovered soon after the race. That required some time off. Now, after more than three months on the sidelines, Declan's Moon is ready to return to action, and his trainer, Ron Ellis, says he is getting all the signs that Declan's Moon will return to the sharp form that has largely defined his career when he makes his comeback on Saturday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Vernon O. Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park.

On Tuesday morning at Hollywood Park, Declan's Moon completed his training for the Underwood with a swift half-mile drill in 46.40 seconds under exercise rider Alfonso Valente. The time was the fastest of 55 at the distance.

"He's doing great," Ellis said. "The only reservation I have is that I thought he was doing super before his last race."

Del Mar's Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap was the second start for Declan's Moon following 16 months on the sidelines. It became apparent something was wrong halfway through the race. Declan's Moon was unresponsive to jockey Victor Espinoza's urging, and Espinoza wisely eased him up.

"He had been training at Santa Anita, then we brought him to Hollywood for his comeback race, and he ran great," Ellis said. "He was at Del Mar, but I wasn't happy with the track there, so I took him back to Santa Anita to train. Then he went back to Del Mar for his race. I was trying to keep off tracks that were a mess, but I think he got a lung infection from all the shipping around. It weakened his immune system. But at least we have a horse."

The lung infection, Ellis said, "was the only thing we could find."

"Otherwise, he was perfect," Ellis said. "But until they run that huge race again, it's hard to know if they're 100 percent. We think we know what the problem was. We think we fixed it. He's doing great. Now it's show-me time."

The Underwood is at six furlongs, and Declan's Moon will be facing some crack sprinters, including Siren Lure, the Pat O'Brien winner. Others expected for the Underwood are Premium Saltine, Turnbolt, and Zanzibar.

Turnbolt worked a half-mile in 48.60 seconds on Monday at Hollywood Park for trainer Richard Mandella.

The Underwood is a means to an end for Declan's Moon. He is pointing for distance races like the San Pasqual Handicap, San Antonio Handicap, and Santa Anita Handicap this winter at Santa Anita, Ellis said.

"He'll have an aggressive schedule if he shows he's 100 percent," Ellis said. "All those races come a month apart."

Valenzuela aims for Dec. 26 return

Dec. 26 is opening day of Santa Anita's winter meeting, and is considered the start of a new year in racing in California. For jockey Patrick Valenzuela, it is the day he and agent Jim Pegram have circled on the calendar for his return to action after fracturing three ribs in a paddock accident at Hollywood Park on Sunday.

"It's just a matter of how quick he heals," Pegram said Tuesday. "We're shooting for opening day of Santa Anita. Pat thinks he'll be ready before that, but I'm not that optimistic. All things considered, though, it could have been a lot worse."

Valenzuela was kicked when he went to get on Gotta Getcha for Sunday's fifth race. Gotta Getcha, 2, was making his first start. After Valenzuela was hurt, Tyler Baze filled in. When Baze went to get on the colt, Gotta Getcha turned his hind end to his left as if he were going to kick again, but he did not lash out. Doug O'Neill trained Gotta Getcha, who was claimed out of the race by trainer John Sadler.

"Patrick had just given me his left leg to put him up," O'Neill said. "We were trying to leg him up with the horse on the walk. He planted his front legs, turned, and cow-kicked. It was scary how quick it happened. It sounded like hitting a punching bag. Thank God Patrick was wearing a flak jacket."

Valenzuela is currently resting at home, Pegram said.

Sunshine Millions for Thor's Echo

O'Neill was thrilled that Thor's Echo enhanced his chances to be named the champion Eclipse Award sprinter with his victory under Corey Nakatani in the De Francis Dash at Laurel on Saturday. Thor's Echo was coming back just three weeks after his victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. His two late-season wins concluded a year that also saw Thor's Echo finish second in the Grade 1 Ancient Title Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, and second in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. Though based in California, he traveled and ran well in Dubai, Kentucky, and Maryland.

"I would think he's built a good case to be one of the three finalists and hopefully the favorite," O'Neill said. "He ran second in Dubai, came home and ran second in the Ancient Title, won the Sprint, and three weeks later wins at Laurel. In our mind, he's the champ.

"He was awesome on Saturday. Very impressive. Corey rode him with confidence. The thing that shocked me is Corey said he didn't really handle the track that well."

O'Neill said Thor's Echo will be aimed for a return to Dubai next March, with his lone race between now and then the Sunshine Millions Sprint on Jan. 27.

* Belgravia, the winner of the Hollywood Prevue Stakes, worked a half-mile in 47.60 seconds on Tuesday for trainer Patrick Biancone in preparation for the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 16.

* Norfolk Stakes winner Stormello, another likely Futurity starter, worked six furlongs on Tuesday in 1:12.20 for Bill Currin, his trainer and co-owner. The time was the fastest of 21 at the distance.