01/10/2006 12:00AM

Full Moon Madness still has spark

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Benoit & Associates
Full Moon Madness, 11, will make his 60th career start Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - This is the week the big boy returns - Stevie Wonderboy, that is - when the Breeders' Cup winner and uncrowned champion of the division begins his 3-year-old campaign on Saturday in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes.

There is a chance, however, that Stevie Wonderboy could end up sharing at least a piece of the attention with the grand old man himself, Full Moon Madness, who has a race circled on Saturday's undercard. And yes, for those skywatchers in the crowd, Jan. 14 marks the fullest moon of the lunar month.

After 59 starts covering parts of eight seasons, the chestnut, white-trimmed Full Moon Madness is ready to pick up at age 11 right where he left off at 10. Granted, he is currently hanging around in the lower brackets of the claiming world, a long way from the stakes company he used to keep. But if it makes any difference to Full Moon Madness, he's hiding it well.

And he still loves his public. These days, Full Moon Madness qualifies as a bona fide people's horse, every bit as popular as some glamour-puss Derby colt. He was cheered when he entered the winner's circle at Santa Anita on Dec. 29, after winning the 17th race of his career, and he will be cheered again, win or lose, if he runs as planned Saturday.

"That was definitely the only time I've had the winner of a $12,500 claiming race get a round of applause from the crowd," said his trainer, Jack Carava.

It is only fitting that Full Moon Madness enters the deep twilight of his remarkable run while in Carava's care. Carava still rues the day, nearly nine years ago, when he had no choice but to plug the 2-year-old Full Moon Madness into a $32,000 maiden claimer for his first start, only to watch him be claimed by trainer Robert Marshall for owner Edward Corey.

"At the time, we had three maidens for Golden Eagle Farm, all at the same point in their training, ready to run, and with about the same level of ability," Carava said. "One of them had to go in the maiden thirty-two, and it was him."

The date was June 25, 1997. Over the ensuing 7 1/2 years, Carava had a front-row seat while Full Moon Madness made a name for himself, winning a bushel full of second-tier sprint stakes on both turf and dirt. Racing for Marshall, Full Moon Madness won the 2000 Cal Cup Sprint, the Robert Kerlan Memorial in 2000 and 2003, and a whole bunch of overnight stakes, both open and California-bred.

At one point, Full Moon Madness was good enough to hit the board in the graded Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar, and he raised more than a few eyebrows when, at age 10 for Doug O'Neill, he finished second in the Sunshine Millions Sprint and the Cal Cup Sprint, both at Santa Anita.

A few times along the way, Full Moon Madness was dropped for a pricey tag, but Carava did not bite. Years passed, and then came a lazy afternoon at Del Mar last August, when Carava was pondering a $16,000 claim for another horse on behalf of his longtime client, Ron Valenta of La Canada Stable. Full Moon Madness, making his fourth start for Mark Glatt, was in the same race.

"I didn't like the look of the horse I intended to claim, and I was about to leave," Carava said. "Then I just happened to take a look at the old horse. Mark's guys walked him over clean-legged, no bandages up front, and they looked pretty good. I thought, why not? Ron gives me the leeway to make a move like that, so I did. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing all the way."

In five well-spaced starts for Carava, Full Moon Madness has won twice and finished second twice. His only poor performance came in a starter handicap offered on California Cup Day last November, for which Carava has apologized profusely to the old boy.

"He bled pretty bad that day, mostly because he had to run harder than he should have, trying to keep up in a race run in 1:08," Carava said. "You can bet I won't ask him to do that again."

Carava was asked if Full Moon Madness displayed any typical old-horse characteristics. The old horse was standing right there at the time, knee deep in fresh straw and looking neat as a pin, so maybe it wasn't polite to bring up his age.

"There's always something about a horse that tells you he's 11, and it's usually in their eyes," Carava said. "There's not as much gleam to the old-horse eye, but as you can see . . ." Carava led the horse to the front of the stall, and right on cue, Full Moon Madness's left eye sparkled.

"Then there's the teeth - let's take a look at his," Carava said, as Full Moon Madness allowed his lips to be peeled back, revealing his vintage tattoo and two rows of handsome choppers. "Nope, his teeth don't even look old."

Neither does Full Moon Madness harbor any chronic ankle or knee problems, according to Carava. His modest, well-balanced frame has no doubt helped stem the normal tide of wear and tear.

"But he is kind of arthritic," Carava said. "If you watch him going in the morning you'll see it. Then he warms up out of it. He gets plenty of Adequan [the FDA-approved drug for equine degenerative joint disease], but we don't train him on bute, except when he breezes. And he responds to being trained like a young horse, with a fairly tight pattern of works, mile-and-a-quarter gallops, and a lot of jogging right after he runs."

It is Carava's gift to such old battlers that he knows when to say when. He has retired a veritable fleet of veterans through his career.

"The key is catching a problem early, before it becomes too serious," Carava said. "That way, they at least have a chance to have a second life away from the racetrack as some kind of pleasure horse. He's so smart I think he'd take care of himself to the extent that he'd just quit trying."

Still, Carava gets calls from concerned fans, placing him on notice about the welfare of Full Moon Madness. The trainer assures them that a good home awaits, and even if the horse is claimed away, a spotlight will follow his every move, right into a noble retirement.

Until then, it will be a treat to ponder the yin and yang of the breed, personified by Full Moon Madness and Stevie Wonderboy as they both perform for our pleasure. Youth always will be served first, of course. But bear this in mind and chew on the meaning: Stephen Got Even, the sire of Stevie Wonderboy, is only 10 years old. Full Moon Madness, well, he goes to 11.