12/07/2001 1:00AM

New lease for Men's Exclusive


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As he nears the end of his 8-year-old campaign, Men's Exclusive is still among California's top sprinters.

The California-bred gelding successfully defended his title in the Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 2, proving to trainer Wesley Ward that recent workouts were not a fluke.

Because of the win, Ward is optimistic that Men's Exclusive can be a factor in the major sprints in early 2002 - at the grand old age of 9. The Underwood victory was Men's Exclusive's sixth stakes win and first since the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita last January.

In between, he finished second in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen in the Middle East, losing to fellow California invader Caller One. Making just three starts from June to November, Men's Exclusive was unplaced, including a fourth in the California Cup Sprint. Along the way, Ward gave up on hopes of running in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"Going into the Cal Cup, he was only working fair," Ward said. "But his first work after the Cal Cup amazed me. He was tugging the boy around like his old self. It really brought everything together."

The victory in the Underwood has Ward aiming high.

He said Men's Exclusive may start in the $100,000 El Conejo Handicap over 5 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on Jan. 1 but is more likely to wait for an opportunity to defend his title in the $200,000 Palos Verdes Handicap over six furlongs on Jan. 27. Long-term, Ward wants to return to Dubai.

"We're hoping to get an invitation back," he said.

Ward said the trip to Dubai was taxing for Men's Exclusive. The experience has left the trainer with the opinion that American top-class horses need several months to recuperate before they can return to top form.

"It takes a long time to come back around," he said. "The reason it looks like Dubai is such a drain is by the time they get over anything it's time to be a stud. Mine is a gelding."

Owned by Gene Reed, Men's Exclusive is by Exclusive Ribot and was bred by Reed at his ranch in Southern California.

Men's Exclusive first ran in the Underwood as a 3-year-old in 1996, finishing second to Paying Dues. A year later, Men's Exclusive was the beaten favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Hollywood Park.

Although he was winless in 1998 and 1999, Men's Exclusive has won four stakes since the start of 2000. With earnings of $1,171,758, Men's Exclusive ranks 16th on the all-time list of California-bred money earnings.

Men's Exclusive is not the only Cal-bred sprinter that Ward is looking forward to starting next year.

Bring the Heat, third as a heavy favorite in the Real Good Deal Stakes for California-bred 3-year-olds at Del Mar on Aug. 13, is nearing a comeback. A winner of his first two starts at Hollywood Park and Del Mar in the summer, Bring the Heat is scheduled to start in an allowance race at Hollywood Park on Dec. 15.

"I've freshened him since Del Mar," Ward said. "I'm pointing him for the same Dubai race.

Owned by a partnership, Bring the Heat is by In Excess. A victory in the allowance race could result in a quick turnaround for the Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds over seven furlongs at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

"He has to win. It's not like years past when there has been a Kentucky Derby winner in there," Ward said of the prospective Malibu field. "Granted, they are good horses."