11/27/2002 1:00AM

Former stallion is back


ALBANY, Calif. - Last year, trainer Jeff Bonde won the Forty-Niner Handicap with San Nicolas. He never would have guessed then that he would be running Epic Honor in this year's Forty-Niner.

While San Nicolas was scoring a wire-to-wire victory in last year's race, Epic Honor was residing in the stallion barn at Blooming Hills Farm in Clements, Calif. But it will be Epic Honor representing Bonde Friday against six other runners in the $100,000 Forty-Niner, a 1 1/16-mile stakes for 3-year-olds and up.

Epic Honor's comeback from a career as a stallion is a racing rarity. In his two comeback starts, he ran fourth in an $80,000 optional claiming sprint Oct. 19 at Bay Meadows and fourth in a $100,000 optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles on turf here Nov. 16. He finished well in both races.

"He's made it back farther than Mula Gula and Artax," Bonde said of two stakes winners who went to stud and unsuccessfully tried to return to racing.

"A lot of times, stallions put on extra pounds, especially in the neck, but he didn't. He's climbed that mountain. If he can win, it will be gratifying."

Bonde said the 6-year-old Epic Honor, a stakes winner at 3, has improved since returning to the track. Bonde said he is not concerned Epic Honor will have had less than two weeks between races.

Epic Honor won the Golden Gate Derby in 1999 and lost to Stephen Got Even and eventual Derby winner Charismatic while on the trail to the Triple Crown. Instead of running in the Kentucky Derby, he ran in the Illinois Derby, fractured a knee during the race, and was retired to stud.

Among his opponents Friday are highweight Mercenary, who earned a career-best Beyer while losing by a head to Reba's Gold at Hollywood Park on Nov. 10 in the Steinlen Handicap; Metatron, a 3-year-old who beat Epic Honor in his comeback; and Ninebanks, who was severely compromised by a bad draw in the Cal Cup Mile.

Jimmy Z, Star Cross, and Poker Brad round out the field.

Bonde said that there are no firm plans for Epic Honor's future.

"As long as he shows improvement, the plan is to race on with him," Bonde said.

* Saturday is round 2 of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicappers' Challenge here.

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