07/15/2004 11:00PM

Hendricks won't be waving white flag


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Runaway Dancer, a long-winded son of Travers winner Runaway Groom, will have his share of supporters in the $150,000 Sunset Handicap on Sunday, when Hollywood Park ends its summer meet.

Any parimutuel pressure he might be under, though, will be nothing compared to the emotional load Runaway Dancer will be hauling around the 1 1/2 miles on firm, sun-baked turf. A victory in the Sunset would go a long way toward raising the spirits of the Dan Hendricks stable, coming just 11 days after Hendricks went down in a motorcross accident that has left him without the use of his legs.

As of Friday morning, when entries were being taken for the Sunset, Hendricks was still under intensive care at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, where Dr. Lawrence Marshall, a renowned spinal cord specialist, performed surgery to stabilize the injuries last Monday.

"He's stable now," said Marty Wygod, Hendricks's friend and patron. "He's got a plate in [the spine] and a 'cage' around the damaged vertabrae. He'll be able to have total use of his upper body.

"I wanted Dan to have Dr. Marshall," Wygod said. "I checked him out carefully, because I used him for my neck surgery, and everyone raved about him. He's had 1,800 surgeries, with an outcome rate second to none, and he's on the cutting edge of clinical trials and the new devices from metronics."

Hendricks, who turns 46 in December, will remain in the hospital for another 10 days and then transfer to a rehabilitation facility in nearby Encinitas. There, the hard work of learning how to live life from a wheelchair will begin, but no one who knows Dan Hendricks doubts he will rise to the challenge.

Hendricks comes from a heritage of rock-solid horsemen, fearless and often bloodied by the tough animals they handled. His uncle, Byron Hendricks, earned a reputation for dealing with rogues of all known equine pathologies. His father, Lee, and cousin, Jacque Fulton, were trainers, as well.

Whether riding a tough Thoroughbred, barrelling down a ski slope, or off-roading a dirt bike, Hendricks loved to test his limits. Even into his forties, there was still a lot of the playful kid abounding in his leisure-time behavior. Being father to three boys tends to keep you in the game.

As a trainer, Hendricks has been on his own with a public stable for 17 years. His best horses make up an enviable list, including Smooth Player, Stylish Star, Grey Slewpy, Feverish, Private Persuasion, Reba's Gold, and Blushing Heiress, winning such respected events as the Vanity Handicap, Del Mar Oaks, Hollywood Oaks, Ancient Title Handicap, and the Count Fleet at Oaklawn Park.

"He's young, he's alive, he's a good trainer, and a nice person," said Alex Trebek, host of "Jeopardy" and owner of multiple stakes winner Reba's Gold. "I talked to Danny when he was in the hospital in Riverside, not long after it happened. He told me it was a jump he'd made a couple hundred times in his life, only this time he took it wrong and landed wrong.

"He seemed to have the right attitude for dealing with this," Trebek said. "If it were me, I'm sure there would be moments I'd be filled with regret over the course my life had taken. But maybe this will work out. Maybe he'll be able to walk someday with braces. It's amazing the things they can do with things like cell regeneration."

For now, it is probably a waste of time to send Hendricks flowers. He's not really the type. The sooner he can get on with the next chapter, the next challenge, the better.

There are role models, if he needs them. Bill Shoemaker, then 59, was paralyzed from the neck down in a one-car rollover in 1991. Once he mastered his sip-and-puff wheelchair, Shoe was back at the track, supervising the management and training of such major stakes winners as Fire the Groom, Diazo, and Glen Kate.

In 1984, at the age of 63, the legendary British trainer Dick Hern was rendered a paraplegic after a fall from horseback while foxhunting. To that point he had been Britain's leading trainer three times and won the Epsom Derby twice. While wheelchair bound he was again champion trainer, won another Derby with Nashwan, and trained the brilliant Dayjur.

If Hendricks takes his cue from anyone, though, it will be such mentors as the late Willard Proctor and Hall of Famer Richard Mandella. These are men who never wasted a minute wallowing in self-pity, hard-boiled guys not prone to reveal their compassionate side, at least in public.

By the end of his nine years with Mandella, it was tough to tell them apart, except that Hendricks was the one with the good hair. Sardonic to a fault, always ready with a twist of dark wit, they harbor very few delusions about their chosen profession or the fates that come their way.

"If anybody can handle this, Danny will," Mandella said, sounding like a heartbroken older brother. Then he caught himself leaning toward mushy. "Before you know it, he'll be running us over in the friggin' wheelchair, creating trouble."

Hurry back, Dan. Your support group awaits.