02/18/2010 12:00AM

Off the shelf and back into the fray

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There are comebacks and then there are comebacks. In December's San Gabriel Handicap, old Lava Man tried, after extensive therapies and rehabilitation, to capture a glimmer of the old spark but failed. Next month at the Fair Grounds, Rachel Alexandra will attempt, after six months on the shelf, to resume her wondrous ways. And on Saturday, after more than a year out of sight and mind, Bob Black Jack returns to competition in the San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita.

One was a last-ditch shot by a horse already past his prime. One will represent a reasonable break between a champion's 3- and 4-year-old campaigns. As for Bob Black Jack, his reappearance under silks hopefully can be taken as a sign that he is ready to pick up where he left off in winning the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita at the end of his 3-year-old season.

Bob Black Jack, a $25,000 bargain, has raced just 10 times and won nearly $600,000. His starbound trajectory has been interrupted twice - first by a futile attempt to win the 2008 Kentucky Derby, and then by tiniest of pimples on the right foreleg of an otherwise robust colt who had just won the biggest race of his young life for owners Jeff Harmon and Tim Kasparoff.

Having been schooled in part by the uncompromising W.L. Proctor, trainer Jim Kasparoff, Tim's brother, kind of knows deep down there is no such thing as a small problem until it's over, and it was proven to be, in fact, small. It was one of those tough calls with only one sensible choice, which meant that Kasparoff shut down Bob Black Jack less than a week after beating Into Mischief and Georgie Boy in the Malibu. So much for 2009.

"At first we thought he banged it on something," Kasparoff recalled, which was not a stretch. Bob Black Jack is a handful and a half around the barn, waking up each day with a "Let's get it on" vibe already cooking.

"I trained him light a couple of days, and the thing didn't get any worse," Kasparoff said. "He didn't seem to think anything was up, other than people were feeling his leg a lot. But it didn't go away, either. So we ultrasounded it."

What they found was a small lesion in the tendon, small as the six-dollar transmission bearing that cost Parnelli Jones the 1967 Indy 500, and just as significant.

Fortunately, there is no better treatment than early detection. A minor injury gets to stay that way, and the amazing resources available to modern horsemen get a chance to do their job. Bob Black Jack's tendon was treated with the relatively new platelet-rich plasma therapy -which uses an injection of the athlete's blood to enhance the rate of soft-tissue repair - along with a dose of his own stem cells. (This would be the definition of "Thoroughbred, heal thyself.") Add eight months of recuperation at Bonnie Acres Farm, run by spa-master Bobby Mitchell, and Bob Black Jack was back with Kasparoff at Hollywood Park by early September.

"The leg looks absolutely perfect," Kasparoff said, although he didn't need to. A steady string of works by Bob Black Jack on roughly seven-day intervals speaks volumes about his well-being, especially the most recent cluster under his favorite jockey, David Flores.

"I didn't get in any big hurry," the trainer went on. "He had plenty of foundation before he even had a workout. It seems like he's been in training forever, because I just took my time, and didn't worry about running him until he was ready.

"Now I think he's carrying a little more muscle, maybe filled out a teeny bit more," Kasparoff added. "As far as attitude, he's a wrecking machine and he's hungry. He trains strong, like a good horse trains, and he can be difficult to deal with. That's why I get him out at 5:30 every morning, unless he's breezing. You don't want him behind his screen for three hours if you can help it, watching other horses train before him."

Bob Black Jack went to the sidelines with the world laid out before him. His Malibu was that impressive. At seven furlongs, the distance turned out to be ideal for his combination of effortless early speed and just enough stamina, and beyond that a one-turn mile figures to be red meat on a plate. Bob Black Jack did finish second in the 2008 Santa Anita Derby, beaten just a half-length by Colonel John at nine furlongs. But that was against relatively immature 3-year-olds. As a 5-year-old, playing against all comers, his strengths need to find their proper stage.

The seven-furlong San Carlos, featuring Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Dancing in Silks, would appear to be a smart place to start over again, although history tells Kasparoff that his horse might need a race. After a three-month break during his 2-year-old season, Bob Black Jack returned to run a so-so Hollywood Prevue, then destroyed restricted company in the Cal Breeders Champion and Sunshine Millions Dash (his world record six furlongs in 1:06.53 that day was over a scraped, rock-hard mess of discredited Santa Anita Cushion Track and has since been broken on - cue laughs - old-fashioned dirt). Then, when Kasparoff brought his horse back in late 2008, he needed the Vernon Underwood at Hollywood to warm up for his Malibu blowout.

"I'm excited," said Kasparoff. "I'm hoping we do a little better than some people might think. He's fit enough where, if he comes up short, it's only going to be by one or two lengths. The will is still there, and we should just be happy he's coming back so good. I told my brother, don't get carried away, dude. The horse hasn't run in a year and two months. But if we end up being surprised, fantastic."