10/17/2003 12:00AM

Volponi has stood the test of time


ARCADIA, Calif. - When Volponi won the last year, it was the biggest win of trainer Phil Johnson's Hall of Fame career. But the victory was overshadowed that day because Horse of the Year contenders War Emblem and Came Home lost. In subsequent days, Volponi became better known for exposing the notorious pick six fraud than for his win on that cold day at Arlington Park.

This year has given Volponi a chance to grab the headlines that eluded him that day. But another victory has remained elusive. Volponi has lost all seven of his starts this year, and will come into the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita seeking his first victory in a year.

Volponi has run several good races this year, but seemed to have the misfortune of frequently facing a rival running the race of his life. He finished second in the Brooklyn Handicap on a day when Iron Deputy turned in the best performance of his career. He was second to Mineshaft in the Suburban, and second to Medaglia d'Oro in the Whitney Handicap.

But Volponi also lost several races he seemed certain to win. He has failed as the favorite in three straight races, most recently the Meadowlands Breeders' Cup, in which he was mugged at the start.

"It has been a little frustrating," said Johnson. "He's been running into better horses, but he's been running well."

The Johnson family's Amherst Stable - which includes Daily Racing Form reporter Karen M. Johnson - bred Volponi and retains a 50-percent ownership interest in the 5-year-old horse.

Volponi emerged from the Meadowlands Cup with nasty gashes on his legs after being roughed up at the start. He was treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, responded quickly, and came back to work a sharp half-mile on Tuesday at Belmont Park.

"He seems fine. He's doing everything right," Johnson said.

In many ways, this year's campaign for Volponi has mirrored last year's. Volponi had seven races in 2002 before the Classic and won just two. He came into the Classic having lost four straight races, including the Meadowlands Cup as the favorite. And, like last year, Johnson will be adding blinkers for the Classic.

"I think all horses are better with changes," Johnson said of the blinker change.

In an era of horses who are retired after brief racing careers, Volponi is a throwback. He has raced 30 times, has finished in the money 24 times, has earned $3,187,232, and has competed in graded stakes competition each of the four years he has been on the racetrack.

His longevity is a testament to Johnson's old-school horsemanship. Every year, Volponi has had a lengthy break to recharge. He has never raced later than Nov. 24 or earlier than April 14. The Classic might be his final start, since Volponi is scheduled to enter stud duty next spring. A victory might seem improbable since he has not won this year, the quality of the field is quite strong, and he will be racing in California for the first time.

But Volponi is being reunited with jockey Jose Santos, with whom he won the Classic last year, and he is one of the few horses in the race with proven form at 1 1/4 miles. And as he showed last year, on his best day he can beat the best.