02/14/2008 12:00AM

Taking things full circle

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The last time he was seen in public, in the San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 12, Johnny Eves lost one of those heartbreaking, head-bobbing decisions that should be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. It was that close.

Sharon and Carl Hilliard, who race as the Mooncoin Stable, were down on the track to greet their warrior after that experience. They are convinced he knew something had gone wrong.

"He was looking at the winner's circle," Sharon Hilliard said. "It was like he was saying, 'Hey, I'm supposed to be over there.' You wouldn't think that horses with their pea brains be that smart, but they are. He thought he won."

It's easy to understand why. To that point, Johnny Eves had won five times, including three of his last four, topped by the Malibu Stakes on Santa Anita's opening-day program, Dec. 26. He was trying 1 1/16 miles for the first time in the San Fernando, but that did not seem to faze him a bit. He set racehorse fractions on the lead and was caught by Air Commander only in the final step.

Despite the loss, the San Fernando was encouraging. Clearly, Johnny Eves has dimensions beyond his considerable worth as a very good sprinter. For now, though, the Hilliards and trainer Jay Robbins are going to lead from proven strength, which means Johnny Eves will be running on Saturday in the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap against the likes of Greg's Gold and Surf Cat.

Johnny Eves was bred by the Hilliards and was initially trained by Warren Stute. When Stute's health began to fail, Sharon Hilliard was faced with finding someone to replace a horsemen with more than 60 years of experience and an impeccable record.

"Warren gave me a couple of names," Hilliard said. "Jay Robbins was one of them. When I talked to Jay, the first thing I asked him was, 'Do drugs train your horses?' because something is definitely wrong when your vet bills are more than your training bills.

"I'm not going to tell a trainer how to train my horse," Hilliard went on. "All I expect is deal with me straight, tell me what's wrong, and tell me if the horse is going to make it, or be a claiming-level horse, because I'd rather not spend the money just to watch them run. I kind of like to win once in a while.

"It was also obvious being around Jay that he cares so much for the horses," Hilliard added. "And he's very hands-on with them, which is really important to me."

Carl Hilliard, who owned a wireless telecommunications company, is a member of the Del Mar city council and former mayor of the seaside town, while Sharon manages their racing and breeding. They took their stable name from a town they discovered in County Kilkenny, while on a trip to Ireland.

"We were driving around, and came upon this pretty little village called Mooncoin," Sharon said. "When we tried to leave, the road kept circling back. We literally couldn't get out of town. When we got home we decided that would make a perfect stable name."

Most of their fellow Thoroughbred owners might agree. The business does tend to sometimes resemble a glamorous cul-de-sac, with plenty of temptations, no way out. Johnny Eves, however, is poised to take them all sorts of places. Robbins and his owners are resisting the temptation to try a race on the Dubai World Cup card, but that does not mean they don't have ambitious plans, once the San Carlos is in the books.

"He ought to be able to get a mile and one-eighth," Hilliard said. "And there's a mile-and-a-sixteenth race coming up at Keeneland. So maybe we should find out if he can travel. We've turned down some pretty good offers for him. But Jay's done such a god job with him. He's the best horse we've ever had, and he's named for my father."

The original Johnny Eves owned a San Diego advertising agency and was raising his family in a home on Point Loma, a hilly finger of land that guards the western approach to San Diego Bay. Eves bought his daughter her first pony when she was just 2 years old.

Unfortunately, Eves died at an early age.

"One day he was coming back from the village," Hilliard said. "We lived out at the end of the point. It was dusk. Apparently a dog ran out in front of the car. Somebody saw it happen. He swerved, missed the dog and was killed when he hit a telephone pole."

Sharon Hilliard was 16 at the time.

"My dad was a big race-goer - he took me all the time - and my parents always wanted to own a racehorse," she said. "But if they couldn't own one, they figured they could name one. So they were always collecting labels from that Prince Albert tobacco, and entering the contest to name a Thoroughbred.

"As hard as he tried to name a horse, I thought my father deserved to have a good horse named after him one day," Hilliard said. "I know he's up there, cheering him on."