09/21/2004 11:00PM

This phenom's in no hurry


POMONA, Calif. - Declan's Moon slipped into the Del Mar Futurity flying well below the radar, won the race by a neck over heavily favored Roman Ruler, then just as quickly disappeared again, leaving the townsfolk slack-jawed and wondering what just hit them. He did everything but leave a silver bullet.

Who was that masked man?

Since the Sept. 8 Futurity, other top races for the 2-year-old male division have supplied fresh headlines. Unfortunately, last weekend's action - featuring major stakes in New York, Chicago, and Kentucky - did little to inspire faith in the breed. If there was a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner among them, he was hiding it well.

So, back to the real thing, and time to touch base with the winner of the War by the Shore. A few calls and a brief Google search ran Declan's Moon to ground at Hollywood Park, where trainer Ron Ellis answered his phone Wednesday morning. He asked if he could ring right back, since he was about to put a set of bandages on a horse.

No problem. Who was the horse?

"Declan's Moon," the trainer replied.

Take your time.

Declan's Moon and Roman Ruler danced their way into handicapper heaven that day at Del Mar, running Beyer Speed Figures into serious triple digits and flooring the figures on the sheets. The final time for the seven furlongs was 1:21.29, faster than any of the 11 previous versions of the Futurity run at the distance.

"Whether you go by Beyers, sheet numbers, or the time on the board, 2-year-olds just aren't supposed to run that fast that early in the year," Ellis said a few minutes later. "Those two horses already have the sheet guys going nuts, because they're running in the 2's, which is usually good enough to dominate the Kentucky Derby as a 3-year-old."

When a young, undeveloped horse runs that fast, the natural tendency is for a trainer to be terrified. That much speed under pressure - Declan's Moon and Roman Ruler went head-and-head for the final three furlongs - can be enough to unhinge the strongest set of legs. Understandably, Ellis was holding his breath until Declan's Moon was cooled out and deep into his feed tub.

"I left for the Kentucky sales the next morning," Ellis said. "So

I didn't lay eyes on him for eight days. I was getting reports that he was eating good and acting good. We took bloods on him and everything looked fine. He's just been jogging now for the last four days."

Soon, it will be back to work. Declan's Moon will not be running in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 3 - the final major West Coast prep for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - but the BC Juvenile is still a possibility (owners Mace and Samantha Siegel are facing a $135,000 supplementary fee), and so is a two-race package at the end of the year that includes the Prevue Stakes and the Hollywood Futurity.

Although he has been training stakes winners for more than half his life, the 44-year-old Ellis has yet to make a significant statistical contribution to either the Breeders' Cup or the Kentucky Derby. His first and only Derby starter, Atswhatimtalknbout, finished a troubled fourth in the 2003 running, while his lone Breeders' Cup try came in 1997, when the filly Exotic Wood finished fourth in the Sprint.

To hear Ellis explain it, skipping the Breeders' Cup with a 2-year-old makes perfect sense. There is a reason, he maintains, that BC Juvenile winners have gone on to win only one of the 60 Triple Crown events contested since Breeders' Cup began in 1984. And when it comes to running 2-year-olds, Ellis is more than conservative. He is downright evangelical. In fact, he is still amazed that Declan's Moon has so much so soon.

"You know me," Ellis said. "If I run a 2-year-old they've got to be pretty darn fast. And this guy has great mental attitude, almost a push-button horse in that respect.

"But there is no way a horse can go from being a Breeders' Cup 2-year-old to lasting as a 4- or a 5-year-old, and have a 3-year-old campaign on top of it," said Ellis. "It would be exciting to see, but it sure hasn't happened in awhile."

He got that right. By the Ellis definition - top-level performances in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and 3-year-old classics, followed by a satisfying older handicap campaign - there is only one horse in the last 20 years who fits the bill. His name is Alysheba.

"With the horses nowadays, it just doesn't seem possible," Ellis said. "And yet everybody screams that horses don't stay around. It's because of the pressure to run now. Right now."

Ellis continues to work under the assumption that the ultimate American race for an owner to win is the Kentucky Derby. Since Declan's Moon is a precocious gelding with classic potential, Ellis and the Siegels will be weighing their decision with a different set of scales. Do you get it while you can, or try to stick around for the long haul?

"I know horses can fall apart at any time," Ellis said. "But I'll tell you what. Anybody who would knock us or anyone else for not running in a Breeders' Cup 2-year-old race, I would never want to see them write that people retire horses too early."