01/05/2005 1:00AM

Knowing when to say when

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is a natural tendency to worry about the well-being of an 8-year-old gelding, once ranked near the top of his class, who goes nearly a year without winning, then finishes last against horses he once would have handled for fun.

It also should be of concern when a rugged old battler of stakes-winning quality emerges from retirement at the age of 11 to lose a race against mediocre foes, then disappears again from the scene.

And it can be a real shock when a quality Thoroughbred appears in a sales catalog as a potential horse of racing age, even though he is 10 years old and has not seen action for nearly two years.

Mellow Fellow is that horse, listed as Hip No. 44 for the Barretts Winter Mixed Sale in Pomona, Jan. 24-25. During his career he won 11 times, all but one for the late Bart Heller. Upon Heller's death, the horse was purchased with high hopes by Sid and Jenny Craig, since Mellow Fellow was on a roll of six straight wins.

For the Craigs, Mellow Fellow placed in four graded stakes and earned about $136,000. He raced for the last time in the 2003 San Carlos Handicap, after which a tendon injury knocked him out of training. He has been living at the Craigs' Rancho Paseana near Del Mar, a beautiful facility with a state-of-the art training grounds and ample pastures, where a horse like Mellow Fellow might enjoy a hard-earned permanent home.

"We're already doing that with a number of horses," said Ted Aroney, an adviser to the Craigs' racing interests. "He never won for Sid, and he paid a lot of money for him, though there is nothing wrong with that. One thing we'd never do is let any killers buy him for horse meat. He probably needs a cheaper track somewhere, with someone who wants to put in a little time with him."

Such sentiments are not unusual in racing, a game played with a combination of rock-ribbed economics and heartfelt romance. For one owner, however, Mellow Fellow's consignment to a sale rang hollow.

"That's disturbing, to say the least," said Jeff Sengara, whose most famous retired gelding is the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up, Budroyale. "Obviously, the horse has problems preventing him from running. But that's just not dignified."

Budroyale, a $50,000 claim, earned $2.5 million and was retired to a life of leisure at Canmor Farm, not far from the Sengara home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sengara could soon be facing the decision of retiring another well-claimed gelding. Bluesthestandard, who went from a $50,000 claiming price to a second-place finish in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Sprint, finished ninth of nine in the El Conejo Handicap in his first start as an 8-year-old at Santa Anita last Sunday. Bluesthestandard has banked more than $760,000 for Sengara, but he is winless since the Palos Verdes Handicap on Feb. 1, 2003.

"It's a fine line to know when they really want to go," Sengara said. "I think they'll show you in their training when they're just not themselves anymore. They'll stand at the back of the stall. Their personality will change.

"The thought [of retirement] crossed my mind last fall when he didn't fire in the Ancient Title Handicap," Sengara said. "But only for a second. There were still so many things in his favor."

In the El Conejo, Bluesthestandard raced wide for much of the way and was beaten about six lengths on a track that had turned slippery from a downpour 20 minutes before the race. He is now scheduled to make a defense of his Palos Verdes title on Jan. 23, and Sengara anticipates a return to his old form.

"When the day comes, we'll know it," Sengara said of retirement. "And when it does, Bluesthestandard will have a home right beside Budroyale."

Fans of Men's Exclusive figured the old pro was enjoying a similar retirement after his poor performance in the 2003 Cal Cup Sprint at Santa Anita. To that point, Men's Exclusive had delivered 45 starts over nine seasons, while banking $950,000 for his owners and breeders, Gene and Doris Reed.

Then, at the L.A. County Fair last September, the 11-year-old Men's Exclusive turned up in a $40,000 claiming race for trainer Wesley Ward. He finished fourth without a threat.

"I was really skeptical," said Debbie Kaatz, the Reeds' daughter, who had taken over management of the family horses upon the death of Gene Reed in 2003. "I even said to Wesley that he had to promise someone wasn't going to take the horse. I mean, this horse was an extension of my dad.

"I felt it was my gift to the horse to bring him back one more time," Kaatz said. "He loves to run. And he loves the racetrack. But after that race, I couldn't risk him again. So he came home."

Last fall, Men's Exclusive suffered a serious cut in a dustup with another horse at the Reeds' Heavenly Acres Farm near Chino. He spent a month in total stall rest.

"He's doing great now," Kaatz said. "But there's no way he could ever train again. He'll have to get used to retirement, whether he likes it or not. Hopefully, he'll just get fat and sassy. And I'll never let him get too far away from home."