01/08/2007 12:00AM

Trying to shake off champion's hex


ARCADIA, Calif. - By now it has been pretty well established that if you want to stick a fork in the promising career of a 2-year-old Thoroughbred, make him a champion.

Once upon a time, the idea was absurd. Chances were, a champion 2-year-old was good enough to become a major player at age 3 and even 4, and he did not need to be Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, or Spectacular Bid. He also could be Foolish Pleasure, Deputy Minister, Chief's Crown, Forty Niner, Lord Avie, or Rockhill Native, all 2-year-old champs who continued to hold their heads high as they matured.

Compared to those admirable animals, the last decade of 2-year-old male champions would barely make for a decent Grade 3 stakes field. Assembled as a group - heads hanging and feet shuffling in embarrassment - only Favorite Trick and Macho Uno would dare to wear their subsequent records in public, and even those two fell well short of national recognition.

More typical are the post-championship histories of Boston Harbor (0-for-1), Answer Lively (0-for-7), Anees (0-for-3), Johannesburg (0-for-3), Vindication (never started again), Action This Day (0-for-6), and Stevie Wonderboy, who ran once and is still in training.

Each of those runners wrapped up the 2-year-old championship with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that success in the Juvenile poisons all downstream efforts for some strange reason, which makes no sense, but there you are.

Any whiff of a Breeders' Cup hex was avoided by Declan's Moon, a gelding, who was tactically withheld from the 2004 BC Juvenile in order to finish the year on a wham-bang note at Hollywood Park, deftly snagging the division championship in the process.

However, true to recent historical form, Declan's Moon has been 0-for-4 since winning the Hollywood Futurity, nearly 25 months ago. A large hunk of that period was spent recovering from knee and cannon bone injuries. But even when trainer Ron Ellis has been able to present Declan's Moon in public, looking sharp and strong, he has not been able to find the winning key.

Declan's Moon, now age 5, will try to make 2007 his resurrection tour, beginning on Saturday in the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap. At 1 1/16 miles on the main track, the San Pasqual would appear to be perfect for Declan's Moon, whose youthful speed always seemed ripe for profit over at least a middle distance of ground.

In addition to the faded champ, this year's San Pasqual is populated by a bunch of salty old grizzlies, none of them superstars but each one a threat at his best. Over the last decade, the race has been won by some genuine gems, including Alphabet Soup, Silver Charm, and Congaree. Even with his lack of recent success, the name of Declan's Moon would look good among them.

In his most recent appearance, Declan's Moon finished a distant third behind longshot Sailors Sunset and ace sprinter Siren Lure in the six-furlong Underwood Handicap at Hollywood Park. The winner went wire-to-wire that day over a souped-up Cushion Track, leaving Ellis feeling like he wasted an afternoon.

Still, for Declan's Moon it was not a step backwards, unlike the Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar, in which he was practically eased. Ellis needed to treat his champ for a minor infection after that race, adding another level of frustration to the mounting heap.

Declan's Moon was the first champion in the history of the Siegel racing family - patriarch Mace, his late wife, Jan, and their daughter, Samantha. In addition to Declan's Moon, Mace and Samantha Siegel have enjoyed recent success with millionaire Suave, now retired to stud, as well as Ashland Stakes winner Urbane, Suave's dam.

Declan's Moon was unbeaten and being pointed for the Kentucky Derby trail when he emerged from his fifth win, in the 2005 Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita, with a chip in his left knee.

"It had rained the day before the Santa Catalina, and the track was sealed so tight it looked like the rain was bouncing off pavement," Samantha Siegel recalled this week. "If we hadn't been trying to get to the big dance, we would have scratched. But you can't do that when you're trying to get to the Derby."

Knee surgery was successful, but the initial comeback was not.

"The moral of that story is that even if you think you just have a chip, do the nuclear scan," Siegel said. "A scan would have picked up the fact that the cannon bone was bruised, too. Had we known that, we could have given him an extra 30 days and he would have come back perfect. Instead, we got him maybe a third of the way to a race before we had to stop all over again."

Since the Underwood, Declan's Moon has been training like a horse who wants to play hard and fast. His mile on the synthetic Hollywood surface on Christmas Eve was clocked in a racy 1:39.40.

"He looks fantastic, and he's sending out all the right messages," Siegel said. "All he's got to do is go out and build up his confidence, and think he's king of the world again."