08/18/2006 12:00AM

Long comeback trail for juvenile champ

With one start under his belt after injuries kept him from racing for more than a year, Declan's Moon, the Eclipse-winning juvenile male of 2004, is back for a stakes in Sunday's Pat O'Brien.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Since March 2005, when Declan's Moon went to the sidelines with an injury, owner Samantha Siegel has watched with envy as some of the horses that he beat went on to greater things.

Giacomo, second to Declan's Moon in the 2004 Hollywood Futurity, won the 2005 Kentucky Derby in an upset. Siegel could only wonder what Declan's Moon could have accomplished if he had stayed healthy.

"It's terrible to watch all the horses you beat win all these major races," Siegel recalled earlier this week. "It hurt."

Declan's Moon is back this summer, and makes his first stakes appearance in 17 months in Sunday's $300,000 Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap at Del Mar. The Grade 2 race at seven furlongs is Declan's Moon's second start of the year, after a nose loss in an optional claimer at Hollywood Park on July 16. The loss was the first in the six-race career of Declan's Moon, the champion 2-year-old male of 2004.

"We're back in action," Siegel said. "Everything looks great. He's training great. I think he's ready . . . ."

The Pat O'Brien will be Declan's Moon's first start in a stakes since he won his 3-year-old debut in the Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita in March 2005.

The win in that race seemed to put Declan's Moon on course for the Kentucky Derby, but a week later trainer Ron Ellis announced that the gelding had a fractured knee. Declan's Moon returned to training in August 2005, but was taken out of training last fall when a nuclear scan revealed a fracture at the top of a cannon bone.

Since returning to training earlier this year, Declan's Moon has had no setbacks, other than being caught by Desert Boom at the finish of the optional claimer last month.

"We gave him plenty of time," Ellis said. "He kept right on schedule this time when I brought him back. I was pretty confident he'd be where I wanted if he hadn't gotten hurt."

Siegel, who co-owns Declan's Moon with her father, Mace, said the difficult part of the layoff was the second injury, which took time to detect.

"I was discouraged he had to go out again, but by the time he went out I was glad to know what it was," she said. "It felt like too long not knowing what the problem was. It wasn't obvious. That was the hard part."

In his comeback race, on the final day of the Hollywood Park meeting, Declan's Moon was heavily favored in a race at 6 1/2 furlongs. He was a close third on the backstretch, took the lead in early stretch, and was caught on the line. It can be argued that jockey Victor Espinoza rode too confidently, but trainer Ron Ellis has never criticized the ride.

"I was very encouraged by the way he came back, his fluidity," Ellis said. "I thought he was the best horse. I think he'll move forward. For me, it was the perfect race if he'd won. For the long term, it was the perfect comeback race."

The seven-furlong Pat O'Brien will be a test for Declan's Moon. He will face a field loaded with stakes winners, including two Grade 1 stakes winners from July: Pure as Gold (Bing Crosby Handicap) and Siren Lure (Triple Bend Handicap).

Samantha Siegel is not making plans beyond Sunday. She is just glad to have the champion back to the stakes level.

"You can't get too far in front of yourself," she said. "Our main goal is to make it through Sunday and have a winning race. After that, we'll go out and celebrate and think about the next stop."