03/21/2005 1:00AM

Champ knocked out, briefly

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It was him all right, Declan's Moon, the unbeaten champion of his generation, last seen in graceful display of his abundant talents while winning the Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita on the afternoon of March 5.

Now he was at the Equine Medical Center of Cypress, Calif., a stone's throw from Los Alamitos Race Course, and a far cry from the familiar surroundings of the Ron Ellis stable at Hollywood Park. It was 1:05 p.m. Saturday afternoon, as Declan's Moon lay flat on his back, cradled in a padded trough, with three legs dangling free and a fourth - his left fore - pulled straight by a ceiling winch attached to the hoof.

Declan's Moon was out cold, blissfully anesthetized by Dr. Steve Buttgenbach, who administered a cocktail of potions (xylazine, guaifenesin, ketamine) designed to allow the patient gentle entry and exit from the procedure with an absolute minimum of side effects.

That right knee made headlines the week before when it was discovered that Declan's Moon had emerged from the Santa Catalina with the slightest beginning of a chip fracture at the lower outside tip of the long bone, called the radius, attached to the top of the left knee.

It took Dr. Wayne McIlwraith barely 20 minutes to fish around inside the knee joint with his arthroscopic forceps and break off the offending chip, then scrape clean the exposed bone surface and neatly trim the surrounding cartilage.

The television monitor, of course, makes the whole ordeal look like the major excavation of an underwater coral outcropping. In fact, the surgeon was working in a space the size of a baby's fist, and the bone fragment removed would have fit neatly on the nail of McIlwraith's little finger.

After sutures and a fresh set of X-rays, Declan's Moon was trundled into a recovery stall and placed gently on his side. Within 15 minutes, the woozy champ struggled to his feet and, with the help of attendants fore and aft, walked gingerly into a thickly bedded conventional stall in the clinic's main ward.

The whole process lasted barely an hour, while the operation itself seemed about about as serious as a manicure. Still, there is nothing "minor" about any form of equine surgery, especially when an anesthetic is involved and a champion's career is at stake. Afterward, as McIlwraith examined the before and after pictures of his work, it became clear how little it takes to stop a Thoroughbred cold, and how important it is to detect such situations as early as possible.

On the initial X-rays, the chip was not displaced, or separated, from the lower end of the radius. Upon McIlwraith's first view through the arthroscopic camera, it was clear that the chip had begun to displace. A tiny lip of bone was sticking out from the surface of the radius.

"We'll go in to get chips like this one, and we'll find we've got a whole lot of other fragments," McIlwraith said. "But if you're going to pick a chip, this is the best chip you can get."

At the worst possible time. When the chip was discovered, Declan's Moon was on schedule to run in the Santa Anita Derby and then the Kentucky Derby. Ellis, along with owners Mace and Samantha Siegel, now must be content with the prospect that Declan's Moon, a gelding, could return to competition later this year and race into the foreseeable future.

"Looking at that first X-ray, they might have tried to get him to the next race, had he been a colt, since the Derby is so important," McIlwraith noted. "But there's no telling how that chip would have acted."

Ellis preferred to look ahead.

"He'll stay with me at the track while he recovers," the trainer said. "It will be at least 60 days before he can do anything. But we'll be able to give him constant attention, plenty of ice, some healing treatments."

As far as missing the Derby, Ellis is glad they did not take a chance with the knee.

"It's a good thing he wasn't a colt, and that we didn't try to go on, because the first time I worked him that chip probably would have peeled off," Ellis said. "If there's one thing I've learned with fractures, it's that you can have a hairline one week, and the next set of X-rays can show it start to separate."

He is not alone. The incidence of detectable bone chips and stress fractures is borderline epidemic at racetracks these days. McIlwraith cited a recent study he was involved with that monitored 200 California horses trained by leading stables from the start of their careers. Eventually, half of them had injuries requiring significant layups.

"We're still analyzing the data," McIlwraith said. "We've looked at the bloods of the injured horses before fractures and compared them to the bloods of horses that didn't fracture. And there appear to be some predictors, which is obviously the Holy Grail."

So, if it is possible someday to anticipate even the smallest fractures, or even soft tissue damage, by the reading of a simple blood test, wouldn't that put a dent in the business of the equine surgeon? McIlwraith didn't blink.

"That's okay with me," he said.

In the meantime, send those get-well cards to the Ellis barn at Hollywood Park.