07/24/2001 11:00PM

Rise and fall of Christmas Boy

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It came as a cold shock of reality to see Christmas Boy's name in the program here last Saturday for the seventh race. The distance was right - six furlongs on the main track. But the context made no sense. These were horses running for a claiming price of $20,000, and the last time anyone saw Christmas Boy in competition, he was a long way from being mistaken for a $20,000 claimer.

Two years earlier, almost to the day, Christmas Boy was standing in the Del Mar winner's circle after his victory in the Bing Crosby Handicap. This is the same race won in recent years by champions Kona Gold, Lit de Justice and The Wicked North, and by Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Thirty Slews. Poseurs need not apply.

Christmas Boy ran once more at Del Mar that summer of '99. He stayed true to form, losing the seven-furlong Pat O'Brien Handicap by a scant nose to Regal Thunder. After that, he was sent to Florida to prep for the Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park. But he injured a tendon, and that was that. Christmas Boy dropped off the radar screen.

For the next year and a half, trainer John Sadler worked patiently in an attempt to revive the racing career of Christmas Boy. It was certainly worth a try. Christmas Boy's record already was characterized by long gaps of recovery and repair, and each time he came back better, until he reached his peak at the age of 6.

But soft-tissue damage usually signals the end of the line. While the occasional exceptions make for good stories, the rule is hard to avoid. "Bowed tendons," said one veteran trainer, "are like cancer."

For Christmas Boy, there was no remission. He would never be the same horse who won the Crosby in 1:08.11, faster than either of the winning times posted by Kona Gold the past two years.

To his credit, Sadler has spent his own money to care for geldings who can no longer stand training. But instead of being retired to life in a pasture, resting on the laurels of six wins in 14 starts, the 8-year-old version of Christmas Boy was led over last Saturday in the company of seven horses who among them never raised an eyebrow outside the claiming world. Sadler took full responsibility for the incongruous sight.

"I've been trying to get him back for a long time," Sadler said as Christmas Boy entered the Del Mar paddock last weekend. "He's been acting so good lately that I thought it was worth a try. I suppose if he doesn't run any good we can just retire him. I figured at this level he'd be competitive without getting pushed too hard. And I wouldn't think anyone would claim him. Would they?"

They would, and they did. Christmas Boy showed a trace of speed for a half-mile, then began to fade. He was last under the line, allowed to finish on his own momentum by Tyler Baze. Wesley Ward claimed Christmas Boy, as both owner and trainer, and now the old boy resides on the west side of Del Mar's Barn LL, in stall 38.

He was lounging there Tuesday morning, on a thick bed of wood shavings, when Ward and a visitor approached. Anxious for company in his new surroundings, Christmas Boy clambered to his feet and welcomed the attention.

"I've liked this horse for a long time," said Ward, whose best horse, Men's Exclusive, is also an 8-year-old with glowing sprint credentials.

"His race the other day didn't discourage me," Ward said. "I've found that happens a lot with an older horse coming off a long layoff. And I'm sure John was being very careful with him, so he might not have been as fit as he could be."

The claiming business is no place for the thin-skinned. Losing a horse like Christmas Boy can open the door for a chorus of second-guessing. Ward was careful not to sound critical of Christmas Boy's condition as he reached down and lifted the gelding's left foreleg.

"You can see the tendon," Ward said, indicating at an obvious bump midway between the knee and the ankle. "But when you pinch it like this, nothing. If there is still a problem they will react."

Christmas Boy was unfazed. Tendon, new digs and all, he still looked the part of a runner who could have made an impact at a Breeders' Cup.

"I won't do anything at all with him until Wes Champagne does his feet," Ward said, referring to the noted farrier who specializes in glue-on shoes.

"Even then, I won't train him much. He'll get a lot of backtracking, just to keep him fit. I'll know pretty quick if he has any of his old ability.

"If not, my aunt, Linda Baze, is an outrider here, and she takes a lot of old horses off the track to places with people who want them. She could end up with another pony."