02/26/2003 12:00AM

Two battered soldiers still fit for the battle


NEW ORLEANS - Maybe sometime before they race Sunday in the New Orleans Handicap, Best of the Rest and Valhol can compare scars.

Best of the Rest, an 8-year-old, has undergone four surgeries on his knees. Valhol, 7, has been under the knife three times, once to take chips out of both knees, another time for an ankle chip, and once to remove a fractured splint bone. For good measure, he nearly died from a terrible case of pneumonia.

Not only are these two horses still running, they're competing and winning at a high level. Valhol comes into the New Orleans Handicap after a win in the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup. Best of the Rest just won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic. Valhol has won 6 of 20 starts and more than $444,000. Best of the Rest has won 14 of 27, and with $550,000 from his last win, he has earned close to $1.2 million.

"I liken him to a George Foreman fighting at such an advanced age," said Eddie Plesa, Best of the Rest's trainer. "He has a tremendous heart. When you see how he trains and know him on a personal level, you have to be amazed at him."

Dallas Keen, Valhol's trainer, also admired his runner's toughness.

"There are some horses that won't deal with any sort of discomfort," Keen said. "This horse, he loves to go out and train. He's a pretty neat little horse."

Best of the Rest made it to the races as a 2-year-old in 1997, but he came up with a bone chip in his knee that required surgery before year's end. Later, his other knee needed an operation. Besides the surgeries Best of the Rest was out more than a year with a rare crack at the back of his knee.

Valhol first showed signs of a chip after his career debut early in his 3-year-old season. Later in the year, he had surgery on both of his knees, and just last year Valhol underwent surgery to repair a chip in his ankle.

But 2001 was a particularly bad year for Valhol. A fractured splint bone was bothering him in the spring and eventually had to be taken out. Back in training, Valhol shipped by van from Texas to Delaware and caught pneumonia. He spent close to a month in a clinic, and veterinarians worried that scarring on his lungs would keep Valhol from ever racing again.

"They're just like us," said Dr. Jay Addison, a veterinarian at Fair Grounds. "The older we get, the slower we are to mend."

Addison said recovery from multiple surgeries varied greatly between racehorses, depending when and how a horse was injured.

"The more times you go in, the more fibrosis and arthritis you'll see," Addison said. "For most horses, it means a decrease in the level of performance."

Neither Valhol nor Best of the Rest have lost their zest for racetrack life. Best of the Rest worked a fast mile at Plesa's Calder base on Monday, and Valhol breezed a bullet half-mile Wednesday at Fair Grounds.

"He can't wait to get out to the racetrack," Plesa said. "It's all the exercise boy can do to hold on to him."

Plesa was at a horse sale on Tuesday morning, and he noted the irony of what was going on around him.

"They measure these horses, they scan their hearts, there's all sorts of things they do," Plesa said. "But there's the intangible they have no way of measuring, and that's the desire to go out and compete.

"I have a hard time thinking, how good this horse could have been."