11/06/2003 12:00AM

Old-timers still strutting their stuff

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Take a good look at Men's Exclusive and Native Desert when they walk onto the track for Saturday's California Cup at Santa Anita.

They have represented the California-bred program in major stakes for eight seasons, sustaining their talent over years, not just months.

In a sport that sends horses off to stud after fewer than 10 starts, Men's Exclusive and Native Desert, both 10-year-old geldings, have been as durable as their counterparts of 50 years ago.

Men's Exclusive has won 11 of 46 starts and $1,447,928. Native Desert has won 21 of 73 starts and $1,828,177. Each is in his eighth season of racing.

For nearly all their lives, Men's Exclusive and Native Desert have been owned and trained by the same people, which makes their pending retirements in coming months even more poignant.

Native Desert will eventually go to trainer Juan Garcia's ranch in Tijuana, Mexico, the hometown of owner Miguel Rubio.

Men's Exclusive will be sent to Doris Reed's ranch in Corona, the farm that trainer Wesley Ward uses for his lay-up horses.

Before they leave in the coming months, there is time for them to have one more turn in the spotlight.

Men's Exclusive and Native Desert start Saturday in the California Cup at Santa Anita - Men's Exclusive in the $150,000 Sprint, Native Desert in the $175,000 Mile. They are not approaching the lucrative races in their best form: Men's Exclusive has won only an allowance race in four starts this year and Native Desert is winless in seven starts in 2003.

But a victory by either, or even a placing, would be warmly received by racing fans.

"If you saw him, you wouldn't think he's an old man," Garcia said of Native Desert. "He looks like a million dollars. He's in good shape. Something we can't help is his age."

Across the barn area at Santa Anita, the sentiment is the same around Men's Exclusive.

"I keep waiting for father time to catch up, but he keeps outrunning all those young guys," said Ward.

Realistically, neither Men's Exclusive nor Native Desert should have come this far. They are both by unfashionable stallions: Men's Exclusive, by Exclusive Ribot, and Native Desert, by Desert Classic.

Men's Exclusive was bred by the late Gene Reed, who died on Sept. 13 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease. His daughter Debbie Kaatz said the gelding was an immeasurable source of pride for her father.

"The horse was his life," Kaatz said. "He took him all over the world to places he'd never have gone."

Men's Exclusive was a two-time stakes winner when he was sent off as the favorite in the 1997 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Hollywood Park. A 4-year-old that season, Men's Exclusive finished sixth after fading in the final furlong.

"He ran a big race," Ward said. "That was a thrill to do that on the national level."

Ward would later try Men's Exclusive extensively on the international stage. In his first start after the BC Sprint, Men's Exclusive ran 12th in the $1.4 million Sprinters Stakes in Japan, one of only two turf starts he has made. In March 2001, Men's Exclusive finished second in the $2 million Golden Shaheen in Dubai.

"To come in second in Dubai was an honor," Kaatz said. "Even though we didn't win, we felt like he was a winner."

Gene Reed attended the race but missed the 2002 Golden Shaheen, where Men's Exclusive finished fourth.

"He wanted to go the second time, but his doctor wouldn't let him," Kaatz said.

Through his career, Men's Exclusive has been plagued by foot problems. He has very little hoof wall, forcing the application of glue-on shoes rather than shoes applied with conventional nails. Many times, Ward has had to stop training Men's Exclusive to allow time for his feet to recover.

"He missed a lot of races because of it," said Blake Heap, Ward's assistant.

While Men's Exclusive was best in sprints, Native Desert was at his best on turf, winning 14 of 50 starts and more than $1.5 million on the surface. None of Native Desert's success was supposed to happen, Garcia said.

After Native Desert was claimed for $32,000 at Del Mar in 1996, Veterinarians told Garcia that Native Desert's knees would not sustain much racing.

"He ran at Del Mar and finished second," Garcia said. "I remember the race. He lugged in a little bit. I didn't know he had bad knees. 'He might be able to run a couple of times,' the doctor said."

Instead, Garcia decided to space Native Desert's races, and noticed Native Desert responded to that campaign and the care of groom Miguel Vazquez.

"They said it was one in a million," he said. "It's been a miracle and Miguel took good care of him. I was running him every four to five weeks, and slowly, he got better and better. When we put him on the turf, it helped him."

Garcia said the move to grass prolonged Native Desert's career, reducing the wear and tear on his legs. There have been several layoffs along the way, including a break from July 2002 to April 2003.

Since then, Native Desert is winless, but he has shown flashes of his old form while racing in lesser company. He finished third in a $100,000 claimer at Hollywood Park in July and third in the California Turf Championship Handicap at Bay Meadows in September, a race he won in 2000 and 2001 and in which he finished second in 1998 and 1999. Most recently, Native Desert finished fourth at Fairplex Park in the Pomona Invitational Handicap, a race he won in 1999.

Through the years, Garcia has been amazed at Native Desert's idiosyncrasies. He befriends Garcia and groom Miguel Vazquez, but is not too fond of veterinarians or blacksmith Sal Mora.

When Mora arrived at the barn last weekend to change Native Desert's shoes, Native Desert pinned his ears and quickly shuffled to the back of the barn. It took Vazquez to lead Native Desert out and then stand at his head while Mora finished the job.

"He loves it here and is very happy here," said Garcia, 60. "He hates the vet and the blacksmith. He knows them.

"Miguel Vazquez has taken good care of him and he takes good care of himself on the track. When Miguel comes in the morning, he starts screaming. He's like a pet now."

Soon that pet will be gone from the racetrack, a link not only to Garcia's current stable but his younger days at Caliente in Tijuana, where he first met Rubio. In a way it is fitting that Native Desert will be moved to Garcia's ranch.

"He'll have to learn Spanish," said Garcia.

There are no set plans for either horse's final starts. Garcia envisions at least one start at Hollywood Park during the upcoming fall meeting.

Kaatz and Ward have not decided on Men's Exclusive's short-term future. There is a chance Men's Exclusive will run as an 11-year-old.

"As long as he's running respectfully and is healthy, we'll run him," Kaatz said. "My plan is to have him at the ranch where my dad wanted him to retire and relax."