08/18/2006 12:00AM

If not Lava Man, how about Good Reward?


PHOENIX - There's some big action Sunday at Del Mar - no less than the Grade 1 Pacific Classic is at hand, and it gives Lava Man the chance to entrench himself firmly atop the West Coast handicap set, a position he already possesses.

But does that close call in the Hollywood Gold Cup give you cause for pause? Make you think that he's vulnerable? Or did the courage he showed convert you?

Even if you're in his corner, the one thing you're not going to like about Lava Man is his short price. The morning line tabs him at 8-5. I'll be shocked if he's close to that. I expect much lower odds, around even money. Considering the narrow win margin in the Hollywood Gold Cup, the fact he faltered at Del Mar last year, and the presence of some other nice horses in the field, you have cause to look around for a price before settling on Lava Man's short number.

I'm intrigued by Good Reward. He's always been a nice horse, just a cut below the best. He has seemed at times to be a horse without a niche. He's good on both surfaces and at different distances, but not that good at one of them to really flourish. However, 1 1/4 miles is something he handles, and I find it most interesting that trainer Shug McGaughey, with options galore back East at Saratoga and Monmouth - heck, he could have run this horse in last week's Arlington Million - has decided to ship to Del Mar.

A son of Storm Cat out of the top-class mare Heavenly Prize, Good Reward has handled dirt fine. He was last seen rallying to be fourth in the Grade 2 Cornhusker - but that day he had a terrible post (13), a lousy start, and was left with too much to do. At 12-1 or so he may be worth a gamble.

Declan's Moon ready to shine

Sure, Bing Crosby one-three finishers Pure as Gold and Battle Won figure to be tough in the seven-furlong, Grade 2 Pat O'Brien on the Pacific Classic undercard, but my eye is drawn to 2004 juvenile champion Declan's Moon. The Ron Ellis trainee, who missed all of 2005 due to injury, made his long-awaited return at Hollywood Park last month and was a gallant second. Not only did that run show he was back and feeling good, but also by all reports he bounced out of it well, and he has continued to train strongly. He also gets a shot at these sprinters playing this seven-furlong game. He'd be at a big disadvantage against them going six furlongs, but with the added ground, a race under his belt, proven quality, and apparent sharpness, Declan's Moon seems ready to roll.

Don't dismiss David Junior

You can already hear the groans of disbelief that European hotshot David Junior will not race again until the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic in November, which will also mark his first try on dirt. Remember, though, David Junior put up a scintillating display when he won the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free in March off about a five-month hiatus. And what horse did he beat that day? Only the horse who came back last weekend and looked strong powering home to win the Arlington Million - The Tin Man.

In other words, David Junior's connections know what works with this horse, and as far as trying the dirt goes, he's by top-class dirt router Pleasant Tap. He might like dirt more than he likes turf, and he's already among the top two or three 1 1/4-mile turf horses in the world.

Wild Fit's unlucky adventure

Patrick Biancone did a marvelous job getting Gorella ready for her monster Beverly D. display as everything went perfectly. But for all the good karma he experienced there, he got none of that Wednesday at Saratoga when he brought back Wild Fit from illness and a lengthy layoff. The heavy favorite, Wild Fit threw a fit in the gate, and when the gates opened for the four-horse field, only three immediately came out - none of them named Wild Fit. She broke many lengths behind the field. From there, just a solid finish to set her up for bigger races would have sufficed - but then her saddle slipped and rider Julien Leparoux could do nothing with her, so he wisely wrapped her up and brought her back safe and sound. Surely, she got little or nothing out of the race, though you could reason it turned into a modest seven-furlong work. Biancone said he would stick with his plan to run Wild Fit in the Grade 1 Gazelle at Belmont on Sept. 9.

NTRA National Pick 4 pays off

In case you hadn't noticed, the NTRA National Pick 4 continues to be a great wager. Last Saturday's Pick 4 returned a hefty $648.50 for a $1 bet, and it was no stretch to hit it.

The winning horses were War Front ($5.50) in the Vanderbilt Breeders' Cup Handicap at Saratoga; Gorella ($4.60) in the Beverly D. at Arlington; Go Deputy ($15.40) in the Sword Dancer at Saratoga; and The Tin Man ($13) in the Arlington Million. War Front and Gorella were favored and easily could have been singled. Yes, you had to go against heavy favorite Relaxed Gesture to get to Go Deputy, but he was a very logical alternative. And the deep, strong Million cast pretty much demanded you spread - and if you spread, you had to use The Tin Man, right? I'm not doing this to red-board as much as I am to point out the value in this wager.

Three more National Pick 4's are scheduled for this year.