02/09/2006 12:00AM

The call no owner wants to hear

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It's a small consolation, but at least Stevie Wonderboy is in good company. The list of headline 3-year-olds injured while on their way to the Kentucky Derby is long and honorably populated.

Imagine owning a horse like Stagehand, Equipoise, Gen. Duke, Graustark, Buckpasser, Hoist the Flag, Deputy Minister, Devil's Bag, Hostage, Timely Writer, Roving Boy, A.P. Indy, Event of the Year, or Declan's Moon, and getting that call from your trainer:

"I have some bad news . . ."

Joe Hirsch, who reported Derby developments in the Daily Racing Form for many years, had to convey a lot of such bad news to his readers. Hirsch insists that grim tidings bring out the true personality of anyone associated with Thoroughbreds, and few cuts are deeper than losing a chance to run a contender in the Kentucky Derby. That is why Hirsch always held Christopher Chenery in such high regard.

"Chenery had Sir Gaylord in the 1962 Derby," Hirsch recalled. "He was the solid favorite, and rightfully so after winning the Bahamas, the Everglades, and the Stepping Stone. Casey Hayes had done a marvelous job training him.

"Then he went wrong, on the day before the Derby," Hirsch continued. "Chenery had every right to vent his frustration. But when he got to the barn that day, and got the news from Hayes, all he said was, 'I feel so bad for you, Casey.' "

Like most owners, Merv Griffin allowed his heart to skip a beat whenever he was told that one of his trainers was on the phone, just as a parent hates to hear, "It's the principal's office," in the middle of a school day. In the case of Stevie Wonderboy, it was always Doug O'Neill on the other end of the line.

"Ever since Stevie Wonderboy came along, we've adopted a code," Griffin said. "Whenever he calls, and I'm told Doug is on the phone, he doesn't say 'Hello' or anything else. He says, 'Everything's perfect,' meaning everything is fine with Stevie Wonderboy. On Monday, when he called, he said, 'Bad news.' That's when my heart sank."

It had a right. Stevie Wonderboy was two races and less than 90 days of training away from giving both Griffin and O'Neill their first Derby starter. And signs were good. After wining the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and being named the champion of his division, Stevie Wonderboy indicated he was ready to pick up where he left off by finishing a strong second to Brother Derek in the San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 14. His next start was to have been in the Santa Catalina Stakes on March 4, but then came Monday's workout, and O'Neill's call.

"We'd just gotten the portrait of Stevie Wonderboy to hang in the entrance of my office," Griffin said. "Two hundred Stevie Wonderboy hats had just been delivered. I had major business meetings, things to do, but I canceled everything. I just needed to be quiet for a little while."

It takes a pretty good blow to take the bounce out of a guy like Griffin. Competitive to the core, whether playing tennis with pals or dueling toe-to-toe in business deals with the likes of Donald Trump, Griffin has grown accustomed to success, some of it on a grand scale. He was already preparing his acceptance speech for the Derby, but who could blame him? Stevie Wonderboy was the kind of colt who could make such oversized dreams come true.

Except for the fact that he is a Thoroughbred - a fragile, frustrating breed designed for maximum speed in the face of inherent structural weakness. Stevie Wonderboy's injury is minor and not uncommon. It was about a three-inch condylar fracture of the third metacarpal (cannon bone) on the outside of the right foreleg, running up from the fetlock (ankle) joint. Two Accutrak variable pitched titanium screws were used to close the fracture, and the prognosis for Stevie Wonderboy's healthy return to competition is excellent, according to his veterinary surgeon, Dr. Ted Simpson, who performed the procedure at the Dolly Green Equine Hospital at Hollywood Park.

"From a clinical standpoint, I believe this was definitely an acute injury," Simpson said, rather than a result of weakness from earlier bone disease and degeneration.

"After I reduced the fractures and fixed it with the screws, I put an arthroscope in the joint and looked at the cartilage in the front and back," Simpson added. "The joint is really clean-looking. My prediction is that when this thing is healed, he'll have a really sound ankle, not the type that has a chronic problem."

Griffin was briefed on the surgery Wednesday afternoon. He had just returned from a luncheon of The Colleagues, an L.A.-based group of influential women who raise money to help abused children, at which Nancy Reagan presented Griffin with a Life Achievement Award. Five years ago, Griffin donated his Wickenburg Inn and ranch resort property in Arizona for use as a sanctuary for abused and abandoned children.

"Dr. Simpson said he came out of it like a pro, the way he does everything else," Griffin said. "That's great news, that he'll be as good as new.

"Still, I couldn't help thinking," Griffin added, "I got the award. The colt got two screws."