10/08/2007 12:00AM

Lost weekend for stakes favorites

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - If there ever was any doubt that it takes a thick skin, helmet, and chest protector to play the horses on a regular basis, last weekend offered indisputable proof.

The carnage began on Friday at Keeneland with the meltdown of Spinaway winner Irish Smoke in the Alcibiades (last at 13-10), and continued the next day at Belmont Park, where Hopeful winner Majestic Warrior phoned in a feeble sixth in the Champagne Stakes, at a buck-oh-five on the dollar.

But that was nothing compared to what California had in store. One after another, the mighty fell like wheat to the reaper, without regard for reputation, company, or form.

The Tin Man, at 3-5, was denied a third victory in the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship on Saturday when Artiste Royal pounced on the turn and beat him a length. Then on Sunday, in gory succession, the 1-2 Hystericalady lost a heartbreaker to the persistent Tough Tiz's Sis in the Lady's Secret, Lava Man finished a grouchy last at 13-10 in the Oak Tree Mile, and Greg's Gold, held at 7-10, was a noble second to Idiot Proof in the Ancient Title after experiencing a tougher trip than the Donner party.

Reactions were mixed among the fallen. Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer and part owner of Hystericalady, could hardly argue with the outcome, especially when his filly ran her trademark quality race and just got nailed on the line.

"It was a tough beat," Hollendorfer muttered. "They all are."

Dave Hofmans, who has brought Greg's Gold back from dead lame, took cold comfort in the fact that he had the best horse, since he also had the worst luck. Idiot Proof had to get the six furlongs of the Ancient Title in 1:07.57 to win by three-quarters.

"I think it might have been kind of a blessing, since he didn't have to run too much," Hofmans said the next morning. "We ended up with a nice 1:07-and-four work."

As for the two old men, their place in the hearts of racing fans is secure. Still, as long as they are being exposed to parimutuel contests, each appearance of The Tin Man and Lava Man must stand sharp analytical scrutiny.

"He tried hard," said Richard Mandella, The Tin Man's trainer, back at the barn. "No excuses. After all he's done, he doesn't need any."

Mandella's sentiments were echoed by Ralph Todd, The Tin Man's owner and breeder.

"Any other time, you'd be overjoyed to finish second in a race like that," Todd said. "But he gets your expectations high."

At least Mandella and Todd could be reassured by the fact that The Tin Man delivered a transparent race, no hair-pulling required. On the other hand, Lava Man's people in the Doug O'Neill stable may need to consult tea leaves.

From the moment the runners in the Oak Tree Mile hit the first turn, Lava Man and Corey Nakatani were buried behind and inside horses, and there he stayed.

"No, Corey, no!" cried Leandro Mora, O'Neill's assistant trainer. "Get him out. He hates it in there."

Does he ever. The slick rail ride that Nakatani used to win the First Lady Stakes at Keeneland on Vacare the previous day was wasted on an unappreciative audience. A natural pack leader, the idea of "cover" to Lava Man is repulsive, and staring at the heels of pacesetters Surf Cat and Get Funky down the backstretch and into the far turn appeared to sap Lava Man's spirit.

"I was worried a little bit before the race that what happened at Del Mar would have an effect, get him down," Mora noted, referring to Lava Man's floundering sixth on Polytrack in the Pacific Classic. "But today, he never had a chance."

Each of Santa Anita's four beaten stakes favorites entered their races with some sort of Breeders' Cup aspirations, three weeks hence at Monmouth Park. Neither Hystericalady nor Greg's Gold have any reason to divert from those goals, and they both should be in the thick of contention for, respectively, the Distaff and the Sprint.

The Tin Man has never had a comfortable fit on the Breeders' Cup program, even though he did win the Shoemaker Mile in his first race as a 9-year-old last May. He has now been second, passed late, in his last two starts at a mile and a quarter, which hardly puts him in the picture against Arc de Triomphe winner Dylan Thomas in the 12-furlong Breeders' Cup Turf.

As for Lava Man, at the end of Sunday, Leandro Mora stood beneath the shedding pepper trees near the Santa Anita receiving barn and reported that their stable star was acting as if the Oak Tree Mile never happened. From an outsider's perspective, Lava Man certainly deserves at least one more chance, if only for old times' sake. Mora added his own spin.

"He owes nobody nothing," Mora said. "In fact, we owe him. If they want, I will take him home tomorrow and put him in my back yard, and he will be there the rest of his life."