08/11/2006 12:00AM

It's Great Hunter's turn to shine

A win by Declan's Moon next Sunday puts him back in the Classic hunt.

PHOENIX - When E Z Warrior came storming home to win the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship July 4, the spotlight was entirely on him, and rightly so. But lost in the glow of E Z Warrior was a splendid runner-up effort by Great Hunter. E Z Warrior suffered a mild setback and will miss Sunday's Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar, but Great Hunter is here and ready to make the Best Pal another rung on his climb up the class ladder.

Great Hunter, owned by Paul Reddam and trained by Doug O'Neill, began his career at Lone Star Park in Texas. He followed a rallying second in his debut there May 5 with a rallying victory there June 8. He drew off to win by nearly two and did it under wraps. After that race, he was privately purchased by Reddam and moved to O'Neill's care. These two have had considerable success together, and O'Neill has shown he can direct the campaign of a top horse, as evidenced by his work with the likes of Lava Man and last year's juvenile champ, Stevie Wonderboy, as well as the Reddam-owned pair of Dancing Edie and Sharp Lisa.

Great Hunter moved to the West Coast and immediately dove into the deep end, hooking E Z Warrior, Diamond Dave, and Hot Flame in the Hollywood Juvenile. Great Hunter was a bit slow into stride, as usual, in the six-furlong Hollywood Juvenile. As E Z Warrior was winding up and surging between horses, Great Hunter was likewise unleashing a strong run. But he was farther back than E Z Warrior, who rallied between horses, and had to circle the field, but he seemed to be closing at the same pace as E Z Warrior. The wide trip cost him in the sixth furlong - he got within a length of E Z Warrior in midstretch but then flattened out. Still, considering it was his first try for O'Neill, first try at Hollywood, and first against winners, it was a tremendously promising effort.

What's more, Great Hunter is a big, strapping colt who looks well designed for more ground and is bred for it. His sire was the marvelous router Aptitude. Aptitude won 5 of 15 for nearly $2 million. As a 4-year-old he won the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup by 10 lengths, earning a 123 Beyer, the highest of 2001. He won the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap by daylight, earning a 116 Beyer. He also won the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup earlier that year. As a 3-year-old he was a fast-closing second to Fusaichi Pegasus in the Kentucky Derby, and was second to Commendable in the Belmont.

Sunday's Best Pal is at 6 1/2 furlongs, so Great Hunter gets a bit more ground with which to work. Considering the way he runs and his pedigree, every little bit more distance plays to his strength. With E Z Warrior temporarily sidelined and with all the Todd Pletcher beasts staying out East, the Best Pal gives Great Hunter a prime opportunity to strut his stuff and show that he might belong on anyone's short list of Breeders' Cup Juvenile favorites.

Don't count out Declan's Moon

The main reason for paying attention to the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien, to be run next Sunday, Pacific Classic Day, is that it is the next step in the return of Declan's Moon. The 2004 juvenile champion came back from a series of ailments to be an excellent second at Hollywood Park last month, showing that he was back and feeling good. Declan's Moon has worked strongly since, and trainer Ron Ellis has wisely determined that off just one race Declan's Moon is not ready to face Lava Man, Perfect Drift, and company in the Pacific Classic.

That day may come soon enough, however. Success in the Pat O'Brien can send Ellis into the late summer with plenty of optimism. Should Declan's Moon run big in the seven-furlong O'Brien you can likely expect a try in the Goodwood at Oak Tree, the West Coast's traditional Breeders' Cup Classic prep. It's not too late for Declan's Moon to make up for lost time and make a big impact against the game's best.