01/11/2008 12:00AM

O'Neill needs fillies to step up

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It must have been a strange feeling, but for the first time since Jan. 1, 2005, Doug O'Neill woke up on a New Year's Day without Lava Man munching hay somewhere in the barn.

Lava Man resides right now at NexStar Ranch in Temecula - not far from Southern California wine country - while undergoing a healthy dose of rest and relaxation. According to O'Neill, Lava Man will be sent to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, in the Santa Ynez Valley town of Los Olivos, at the beginning of February. He will be thoroughly evaluated and then, hopefully, return to the track to begin tack-walking, with sights on a 7-year-old campaign.

"It was awkward, him not being here," O'Neill said Friday morning. "At the same time, he'd been giving us hints the last few races that it was just a matter of time before he'd need a vacation."

The hints to which O'Neill refers were not exactly subtle. After a banner first six months of 2007, which included his second straight victory Santa Anita Handicap and his third in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Lava Man went seriously south. He was sixth in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, sixth in the Oak Tree Mile on the grass, and then sixth in the California Cup Classic against horses who could not have warmed up the true version of Lava Man.

Still, Lava Man managed to win $1.4 million last year, on top of $2.7 million in 2006, figures that leave a significant hole in any operation. There is every chance the O'Neill stable star could make a glorious return this summer, but if this is indeed the beginning of the post-Lava Man era, the trainer can take a big step toward dulling the pain on Sunday when he sends out a pair of talented 3-year-old fillies in competitive stakes.

As Lava Man waned last fall, both Grace Anatomy and Champagne Eyes were on the rise. Grace Anatomy, a daughter of sprint champ Aldebaran, struck first with a close third to Country Star in the Alcibiades at Keeneland. Then Champagne Eyes, a daughter of the A.P. Indy stallion Flatter, tipped her quality a month later in her second start with a second-place finish in the Sharp Cat Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Both fillies are proven going two turns, but to keep them apart this Sunday, O'Neill has Champagne Eyes dropping back to seven furlongs in the Santa Ynez Stakes and Grace Anatomy running 1 1/16 miles in the Santa Ysabel (the event was postponed from the Jan. 6 Cushion Track washout). There are no monsters awaiting Grace Anatomy in the Santa Ysabel - Initiation could have a say for the Graham Motion stable - but in the Santa Ynez, Champagne Eyes will be confronted with Indian Blessing, the undefeated winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"I wish they would make it a little more challenging," O'Neill said, understating the obvious. "The idea was that it might be a small field" - six are entered - "and that even though Indian Blessing is obviously the one to beat, our filly is doing real well, and it would be great to get a graded stakes placing, maybe even a win."

O'Neill and owner Pablo Suarez have never lacked for confidence in Champagne Eyes. She made her racing debut in the Anoakia Stakes at Santa Anita last fall and finished a respectable fourth. More recently, she took a Dec. 31 maiden event at Santa Anita, going 1 1/16 miles. As a $30,000 yearling, Champagne Eyes already looks like a bargain, and physically she has become a beast, standing 16 hands by O'Neill's eye and spanning a lot of impressive ground.

"A gorgeous specimen," is how her trainer describes her. "Really has a presence about her. We think she ranks among the best of the division, and we're anxious to see if we're right."

Suarez is also part-owner of Grace Anatomy, along with Paul Reddam and ballplayer Paul Lo Duca. The memory of her big effort in the Alcibiades has faded, though, after comprehensive losses in the BC Juvenile Fillies in the slop at Monmouth and under more benign conditions back home in the Hollywood Starlet.

"She didn't handle the track at all at the Breeders' Cup," O'Neill said. "After that her coat went a little funky and she lost some weight. I think it was a protest to the New Jersey experience, and it showed in the Starlet.

"I'd be lying if I said I was super-confident she's going to run a bang-up race on Sunday," O'Neill added. "I've trained her a little differently, with a lot more miles and a lot less speed, trying to get the fire back into her. She was horsing just before the Starlet, and we were concerned. But she's pinning her ears and getting cranky, and when she did that before she was running good. The only thing we haven't fully regained is her overall appearance. We've had to clip her twice since the Breeders' Cup, and she still looks a little mousy."

Fair warning, then, and take your pick - a filly of proven ability who has yet to regain her glow, or a burnished rocket ready to fire, confronting a likely champion. Did someone say this game was easy?