08/23/2006 12:00AM

When reputation is bigger than talent


PHILADELPHIA - The lure of Reputation Induced Phenomenon (RIP) lives on. The bigger the name, the more significant the stakes race, the more likely RIP is to appear at a track or simulcast location near you.

Last Sunday at Del Mar, RIP was on display twice within an hour. First, Declan's Moon was made the 3-2 favorite in the Pat O'Brien, a race in which he was clearly slower than three of his six opponents. And then Giacomo was 9-2 in the Pacific Classic, a race in which there was almost no conceivable scenario that got him home in front.

That is your 2004 2-year-old champion and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner for those keeping score at home. And these are the kinds of RIP horses that you simply have to bet against whenever you get the chance.

Going into the O'Brien, Declan's Moon had run one triple-digit Beyer in his career. And that was almost two years ago. Everybody knows Declan Moon's story - unbeaten in five races, but injured and taken off the 2005 Derby trail that March.

Trainer Ron Ellis had to overcome a lot to get the horse back to the races on July 16 in an optional claimer. After 16 months away, Declan's Moon was 2-5 in a four-horse field and, after a ridiculously overconfident ride by Victor Espinoza, was beaten by a nose.

After that race, assumptions were made that Declan's Moon would move forward. After all, it was his first start in forever. Here was the problem. Declan's Moon got a 96 Beyer, the same figure he was running at the end of his 2-year-old season and in his only 3-year-old start. That was not a good sign - a 96 was not going to make him a factor in the O'Brien.

Siren Lure had earned triple-digit Beyers in seven of his last 10 races. Pure as Gold got a 105 in his Bing Crosby win. Battle Won had triple-digit Beyers in six of 10. Why would anyone think Declan's Moon would beat any of them, much less all of them?

Siren Lure was 5-2, Pure as Gold 8-1, and Battle Won 2-1. I did not understand that either. Battle Won had not won a race in 15 months. Siren Lure had won 5 of 6. Now, Pure as Gold could have been a fluke winner, but why Battle Won took more money than Siren Lure was truly bizarre.

Siren Lure roared by Pure as Gold in the stretch to win comfortably. Battle Won was fourth. Declan's Moon could not keep up around the turn, lost his action, and was essentially eased. Obviously, Declan's Moon is better than that, but, just as obviously, the horse should not have been favored in that spot.

You could have made a reasonable case for Magnum or Super Frolic against Lava Man in the Pacific Classic. I could not have made that case, but you could have. It wasn't totally outrageous. I thought Lava Man was simply better. And, in a race with no real pace, I couldn't imagine the horse getting beat. I was simply looking for exactas.

Giacomo was my first toss. The exacta price was bad. There was just no way Giacomo could beat all the other contenders for second. And there was zero chance he was going to beat Lava Man.

I also threw out Preachinatthebar because he was going to be running with Lava Man. And that is no way to hit the exacta. Perfect Drift had not hit 100 on the Beyer scale in 2006. He was another toss.

Each time I read a story last week about how well Giacomo and Perfect Drift were training; I mentally increased my bets, all with Lava Man on top. There are cases when the trainers know more than we do, which is why it is really important to pay attention Derby week and be able to interpret what you see and hear. There was nothing hidden about Giacomo and Perfect Drift. What their trainers said was irrelevant. It was very well established what they could do and what they could not do.

If I had been told before the race that the riders on Magnum and Super Frolic would be trying to keep up with Lava Man on the backstretch, knowing they could not let Lava Man out of their sights, I may have fallen onto Good Reward. I wasn't told and I didn't end up there. I could have said to myself "Shug never ships to the West Coast,'' so he must be serious. I did say that, but not loudly enough. Otherwise, I might have had the $66 exacta when Good Reward finished a clear second. I know some things. I just don't know enough things.

Lava Man ran away from the field on the turn and was never threatened. With three Grade 1 wins at 1 1/4 miles this year, Lava Man is in the midst of one of the great seasons of the last quarter century. I am not big on even money, but that seemed quite reasonable for Lava Man on Sunday.

Perfect Drift was fourth, Giacomo fifth, and Preachinatthebar last, after having the misfortune of dueling with Lava Man for six furlongs.

I am as curious as everybody else to see if Lava Man can duplicate his California form at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. That is a bit of a mystery. The Pacific Classic really was not.