01/20/2007 12:00AM

Thinking this is Boboman's year

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Once the gold-plated Horse of the Year Eclipse Award statue is handed over to those lucky people sitting at the Invasor table on Monday night in Beverly Hills - only ballots riddled with hanging chads could prevent it - the 2006 racing season will be history. Time to turn the page.

Fortunately for the game, Invasor is still answering to the job description of a racehorse and not a stallion. And even though his immediate goal is the Donn-Dubai two-step, there is always the hope he will bounce back from his Middle Eastern trip to produce another grand American campaign.

Be warned, however. For those returning to competition, recent history has not been very forgiving to reigning Horses of the Year. In the two decades since 1987, when Lady's Secret was only a shadow of her 1986 form, only Cigar has successfully defended his ultimate title, whereas Ferdinand, Sunday Silence, Holy Bull, Favorite Trick, Tiznow, and Azeri came out swinging but failed to repeat.

Such a trend justifies an early season talent hunt for a horse who could go all the way. The most common search engine will be the Triple Crown, and the 3-year-olds who are force-fed into those three competitive meat grinders. This is understandable, especially in light of such entertaining stars as Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Barbaro, and Bernardini, all revealed through recent springtime follies.

None of them, though, did enough to be voted Horse of the Year. In fact, it has been such older runners as Saint Liam, Ghostzapper, Mineshaft, Azeri, Skip Away, and Cigar who have impressed voters the most. In the 21 seasons since Spend a Buck won both the Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year, only three colts have been able to convert at least one Triple Crown race victory into the top year-end prize - A.P. Indy, Charismatic, and Point Given.

Given free rein, then, to climb out on a limb, let the record show one vote in the Horse of the Year future book to a member of the field going off Sunday at Santa Anita in the $150,000 San Marcos Stakes, at 1 1/4 miles on the turf.

Boboman hardly fits the profile. For starters, he's 6, rarely an age at which a Thoroughbred begins to make his name. What reputation he enjoys has been entirely on grass, never a good thing for a Horse of the Year candidate. He has earned less than a quarter of a million dollars. He has raced only 10 times - the first five well under the radar in France - and he has competed in one U.S. stakes event. At least he won it.

Boboman is also trained by Richard Mandella, who has been thinking outside the box for so long that he forgot where he put the box. Presented with the 2-year-old version of Boboman in late 2003, he was immediately intrigued.

"He looked like a horse you could do anything you wanted with him," Mandella said Friday morning at his Hollywood Park barn, where Boboman occupies the stall with the best view of his trainer. "Beautifully made. Trained great on the dirt. I even ran him down the hill at Santa Anita in his first start, he'd shown so much natural speed."

Just like that, Mandella's hopes went on hold. The hole in Boboman's record where his 3- and 4-year-old seasons should be was spent recuperating from one small injury after another. In Mandella's world, though, even "minor" surgeries require a major investment in proper recuperation.

"When we ran him down the hill that first time he chipped an ankle," Mandella said. "We sent him out, got him over that, brought him back, and just when he was ready to run he broke a splint bone. We took it out, brought him back, just ready to run again - broke the other splint bone, same exact place.

"They could have happened all at once and he'd have been done with it," Mandella said. "But it didn't happen that way. My owners were wondering why I kept screwing him up."

Boboman, a son of Kingmambo, looked perfectly happy Friday morning, nibbling at his hay while getting a pressurized, cold water treatment on his legs. He boasts both size and balance, wrapped in a rich, chocolate brown body trimmed with black leggings, tail and mane, and the hint of a white star between his eyes.

Fortunately, patrons Alain and Gerard Wertheimer have given Mandella all the room he needs to unwrap Boboman's ability. When he finally returned last summer at Del Mar, the distances were too short. When he started running 1 1/4 miles or more, he could not lose. His 1 1/2 miles in the Hollywood Turf Cup was one of the fastest in the history of the race.

Mandella is so excited about Boboman that he refuses to talk about what's next until it really happens. But the ambitious scenario is clear. After this first baby step in the San Marcos, barring the unforeseen, look for Boboman to venture forth in only the most significant North American races at 10 and 12 furlongs, on both main tracks and grass, wherever they are offered. Then, at the end of the year, tally them up and see if his record doesn't take the breath away.