10/13/2004 12:00AM

Hendricks hasn't slowed down


ARCADIA, Calif. - Go ahead. Try to keep pace with Dan Hendricks.

Sitting deep in the cushioned seat of his black, six-wheeled, cell-powered chair, his right hand finessing the joystick at the end of the armrest, Hendricks zipped across an open patch of Santa Anita backstretch hardpan, bounced over the rutted gap, then spun a hard left to pick up the concrete pathway running past the clockers' shed while dodging a security guard, an umbrella stand, and two jocks' agents.

"Slow down, man," protested the guy dropping behind.

"You kidding? That's nothing," Hendricks shot back, then dropped the hand throttle and spun his fat back wheels, kicking up a cloud of dust.

Hendricks was on his way to the post-position draw ceremony for Saturday's California Cup festival. The fact that he is on his way to anything at the racetrack is pretty amazing, but let's save that for later. Right now, Hendricks was focused on the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic, the 1 1/8-mile centerpiece of the festival, in which the trainer would be sending out the 3-year-old Cozy Guy against such older stalwarts as Tizbud, Kedington, Excess Summer, and Calkins Road.

On paper, Cozy Guy looks like he's in tough against such a field. For starters, only three of the previous 14 Classic winners have been 3-year-olds. Cozy Guy is owned by two sets of brothers - Jerry and Dan Higman and Jeff and Lance Hayes - and he has had a profitable year, winning three races and placing second in the Pomona Derby. To this point, Hendricks has kept the hard-working gelding in a sensible comfort zone with attainable goals. Now, it's into the fire.

"He's training good and he should like the distance," the trainer said, parked at his office desk in Barn 69. "Besides, I don't really need much reason to be taking a shot. Remember, I'm the guy who ran a maiden in this race against Best Pal - and finished third."

Hendricks was harking back to the 1993 running of the Cal Cup Classic, in which the 5-year-old Best Pal was the star of the show and won easily. That day, Hendricks took his shot with Goldigger's Dream, who had spent most of his career running second or third. Under 107 pounds and Laurie Gulas, Goldigger's Dream was beaten less than five lengths. The following year, he finished third in the Classic again.

A good effort by Cozy Guy on Saturday would help spark things around the Hendricks barn. They are used to winning races at a fairly steady clip - including four Cal Cup events through the years - while reaching high points with such top runners as Gray Slewpy, Private Persuasion, Stylish Star, Blushing Heiress, Runaway Dancer, and Reba's Gold.

"It's just been one of those times where it gets kind of slow," Hendricks said. "It looked like it was going to be that way going into Del Mar. We were right. And it was going to happen whether this happened or not."

"This" was the motocross accident of last July 7 that paralyzed Hendricks from the waist down. In the blink of an eye, a life filled with the joys of daring physical activity screeched to a halt. At the age of 45, Hendricks has been forced to readjust in ways that go against his ever-ready, risk-taking nature.

"I've always been pretty low-maintenance," Hendricks said. "If my wife said we had to leave for dinner in a half-hour, I figured I still had 20 minutes before I had to take my shower. Now, everything takes time. I've got to plan ahead."

Betrayed by a machine, Hendricks will be relying on them more than ever for access to the simplest pieces of life. It is no surprise that he has mastered the maneuverings of the powered chair - the lower part of the frame is covered with an honorable coating of backstretch dust - and he soon will have the option of using a specially equipped golf cart for driving over particularly rough ground.

"What I'm really looking forward to is getting the van," Hendricks said. "Right now, I'm just so dependent on other people to get me anyplace. The hand controls of the van are pretty simple and not that expensive. What takes longer is getting it rigged for wheelchair access, and installing the kind of driver's seat that slides back so that I can move myself into it from my chair."

Because their home was a two-story, hilltop affair that relied heavily on steps and stairs, the Hendricks family - wife Samantha and sons Christopher, Matthew, and Gregory - are moving into a more accessible house. Samantha continues to aid Hendricks in the operation of the stable, as well.

"The boys have seemed to handle this okay," Hendricks said. "To them, it's still dad.

"Right now I'm anxious to get out of this brace," he added, giving a tug at the padded metal armor fitted from hips to chin. "I've got to wear it while I'm healing. But I get a set of pictures taken in November, so I'm hoping the doctors will say okay, take it off. That will be a good day."