10/05/2003 11:00PM

Neon Shadow has an ageless quality

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CHICAGO - Just three months separate Neon Shadow from his 10th birthday. His body is willing. His heart is strong. And man, his head is in the game.

"The racetrack is everything to him," Neon Shadow's trainer, Carl Bowman said. "He enjoys every minute of it. When he hears the bugle blowing, he'll run up to the webbing in his stall and prick his ears. He'll do it nine times a day, like clockwork."

The call to the post for Hawthorne's fifth race Wednesday will bring Neon Shadow out onto the racetrack. Neon Shadow may be riding-horse age, but he's still running in feature races. On Sept. 23 he was second in the $76,000 Fall Handicap at Mountaineer Park, and this time he has five rivals in a high-end allowance with a $100,000 claiming option.

Neon Shadow has raced only three times this season, and the Mountaineer stakes was just his second start since March.

"Maybe he has lost a step, but I expect him to come forward off that last race," Bowman said.

Foaled in 1994, Neon Shadow is by the minor Florida stallion Hooched, and the Tampa Bay Downs trainer Ray Tamargo finally got Neon Shadow to the races three days shy of his fifth birthday. Tampa Bay was the wrong league for Neon Shadow. There, he won his first five races by a combined 29 lengths, earning a trip to Churchill for the Grade 3 Aristides. Neon Shadow finished a close third, and Silverton Hill Farm bought him on the strength of that effort, turning him over to Bowman. In five seasons of racing since then, Neon Shadow has won nine times, earning about $400,000. And with intelligence to match his competitiveness, he has provided Bowman with a wealth of amusement.

"He's just now coming into his prime," Bowman said, half-joking.

Neon Shadow hasn't been to Hawthorne since the summer of 1999. With wins at six different racetracks, he isn't especially finicky about track surfaces, but Hawthorne may not be his favorite. The track here was deep and tiring much of last week, and Bowman said Neon Shadow prefers a tighter surface.

Baker Road, Neon Shadow's principal rival, loves Hawthorne, where he has won 4 of 9 starts, including twice last spring. Freshened since early August, Baker Road worked fast a month ago and is likely to produce a top effort. Whether that will beat the ageless Neon Shadow is another question.