03/12/2008 12:00AM

Two old boys ain't done yet


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If the era of Lava Man has ended, someone should tell him. To the eyes of observers Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park, the old boy looked fresh as a daisy and brimming with good health.

After three poor races followed by three months of rest, relaxation, and head-to-toe diagnostics, Lava Man was allowed to roll along for a few furlongs over the Hollywood Park version of Cushion Track. Tony Romero was up as usual for trainer Doug O'Neill, and not that it mattered, but Lava Man got his three-eighths officially in 36.20. O'Neill, watching in admiration, had 35.80 on his clock.

"We were very comfortable he was ready to go," O'Neill said later in the morning. "I just didn't want him to do too much too soon."

Lava Man, on the other hand, is already pleading, "Put me in, coach." It is O'Neill's job to keep the lid on until the time is right.

"We tack-walked him as long as we could before somebody was going to get hurt," O'Neill said. "Then we jogged him as long and as far as we could before he was either going to kill someone or himself. More recently, there have been a few mornings when his gallops could have been given a breeze time.

"Now we'll just be praying he looks as good tomorrow morning as he did before the work," O'Neill added. "It all comes down to how his legs, bones, and joints handle these speed workouts again."

No offense to the older runners in California these days, but the game still needs Lava Man, for inspiration if nothing else. His loss of form late last summer and fall was distressing, and it is too bad it took three poor races before he received time off. But if this is still the same resolute, speed-loving gelding who won both the 2007 Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup, along with more than $5.2 million, he deserves at least one more try before calling it quits.

The same goes for the East Coast version of Lava Man, namely Evening Attire, the 10-year-old institution who ended the 2007 season with a victory in the Queens County Handicap and began 2008 with a solid second in the Aqueduct Handicap, both over the winterized New York surface.

In his most recent appearance, Evening Attire finished a distant fourth in the Stymie Handicap on March 1, a race he won in early 2007. Tommy Kelly, who bred and owns Evening Attire with Joseph Grant, has been around long enough to remember Stymie himself, another old war horse who ran 131 times and raced until he was 8, still hitting the board in stakes.

"That last race wasn't all that bad," Kelly said from his winter home in Miami Springs, Fla. "He likes a little bit of moisture in his track, and it was really dry and fast that day. Maybe it was the class of the field - he's an old papa - but he can sure go ahead and finish fourth once in awhile after all he's done."

Kelly, 88, retired from a Hall of Fame training career in 1998, the same year Evening Attire was foaled. There have been more Kellys training horses on the East Coast than Kennedys water skiing off Hyannis Port, so it is no surprise that Tommy's son Pat has cared for Evening Attire every step of his 65-race career.

The scope of that career is breathtaking, considering the fact that the other Clinton was president when he made his debut at Belmont Park in July of 2000. Evening Attire nailed his maiden win at Saratoga that summer, appeared in the prestigious Hopeful Stakes, then made two more starts before leaving the scene for a year. At issue was his very manhood.

"Neither one of his testicles were descended," Kelly said, "and after he broke a couple of times like he was saying ouch, we thought they might be bothering him, wherever they were. At the same time he had a little chip in his knee, so we decided to do the whole thing at the same time. The doc hunted for those testicles for three hours and finally found one in one place and one in another."

Returning for a late-season run at age 3, Evening Attire won the Discovery Handicap. At 4 he won four stakes, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Red Smith. At 5 he won the Clark at Churchill Downs but was disqualified to second, at 6 he took the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap, and at 7 he won the Stuyvesant in a thriller over West Virginia.

At 8 Evening Attire's season ended in May. Kelly recalls his horse turned out at a farm near Saratoga Lake, N.Y., where he moped around and wasn't really happy until Pat put him back in training. If Lava Man's freshening does him as much good, look out. Evening Attire ran 12 times last year at age 9 and now has earned more than $2.7 million. Tommy Kelly gives all the credit to Pat Kelly's tender loving care, and Evening Attire's DNA.

"His dam, Concolour, is 22 and she was bred last Sunday in Kentucky to that Santa Anita Handicap winner, Southern Image," Kelly added. "It's a little too soon to know if she caught, but if there's one thing I know about these old horses it's this: Those genes don't die."