07/27/2007 12:00AM

Life is fragile, ontrack and off

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DEL MAR, Calif. - He almost made it. It was a little before 1 a.m. early last Monday morning, and Noe Garcia was getting close to the Via de la Valle exit off southbound Interstate 5 that would take him safely to his summer season living quarters on the backstretch of Del Mar. He would have time for a quick nap, then begin his chores well before dawn, tending to the five Thoroughbreds under his care in the racing stable of trainer Doug O'Neill.

Up ahead, an 18-wheeler was crawling along, geared down as the freeway made a gradual climb from the dip in the I-5 where it crossed the San Elijo Lagoon. Garcia swung his green Toyota Sienna van to the left for a lane change and began to pass the semi. Suddenly, his rearview mirror was flooded with bright headlights. Garcia cleared the truck, then eased back into the slow lane, getting out of the tailgater's way. He saw a red streak pass in the dark, close to his open driver's side window. A Camaro.

But the Camaro did not drive off into the night. Instead, Garcia watched in mounting alarm as the driver braked and dropped behind his van. The next thing he knew, the Camaro had plowed into the left rear end of the Sienna, sending it into a high-speed spin, then a roll. At some point, Garcia felt a vicious tug on his left arm, exposed as it was to the pavement as he rolled. When the van finally came to a rest, Garcia knew he was upside down, suspended from his seat belt, and bleeding badly from somewhere. He tried reaching to his left, but nothing happened. The inside of his baggy T-shirt was warm and wet. He shouted for help and tried hard not to pass out. With his right hand he unhooked his seat belt and tumbled to the ceiling of the van. Now adrift in a woozy haze, he wondered why it was taking so long for someone to come. He thought about checking his watch, but for some reason he couldn't. His watch was gone.

The news of the senseless highway accident that took most of Noe Garcia's left arm last Monday has rippled through Southern California racing with a sadness reserved for only the most respected and beloved members of the tightly knit community. Everyone who works with horses can testify to the lightning strike of serious injury coming from out of the blue. Likewise, there are the perils of a nomadic existance, living out of a car, on the road at the oddest hours, exposed to all manner of strange twists and turns that derive from a business that mixes agriculture and gambling.

By most standards, though, Noe (pronounced NO-ay) Garcia, a 39-year-old native of Guatemala, has been able to create a reasonably stable and successful life for himself, his wife, Thelma, and their four children. He even might have ended up in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle this year had Paul Reddam's Great Hunter produced his best race on the big day.

But it is Lava Man that has made Garcia a household name, at least among his peers. With more than $5 million in earnings since his $50,000 claim, Lava Man has dominated the major races of Southern California since the summer of 2005, when he won the first of three straight Hollywood Gold Cups.

"You can't talk about Lava Man's success without talking about Noe," insisted O'Neill. "He is a class guy who goes about his work without raising a fuss. He's so quiet that sometimes I wonder if he understands everything I ask him to do. But then I look up and it's all done, and perfect."

Such words are of small consolation now to Garcia, whose life has changed dramatically in the wake of the accident. He takes some comfort in the fact that the perpetrator of the aggravated road-rage assault was later arrested and jailed, and he was not surprised to learn that the guy was drunk to boot. But that does nothing to change the awful reality that his ability to do his job is permanently affected, not to mention the fact that his van was totaled and his good watch was gone, strewn along the interstate along with pieces of his arm.

On Thursday evening, Garcia sat on the edge of his bed in Scripps Memorial Hospital, not far from Del Mar, his head wrapped in gauze from a nasty gash and the remains of his left arm - just a few inches below the shoulder - heavily bandaged. Somehow he managed a smile of greeting for Leandro Mora, O'Neill's top assistant.

"I still feel like the arm is there," Garcia said, with Mora helping to interpret his Guatemalan Spanish for a visitor. "I go to reach for something . . . but nothing."

Mora was there to assure Garcia that his job was secure, and to convey the news that Lava Man's owners - Jason Wood and Steve Kenly - were committing financial support, as was Paul Reddam. A racetrack fund-raiser was also in the works to help buy him a prosthetic limb.

"As long as there is a Doug O'Neill, you have a job," Mora promised.

Garcia's face softened. Mora's words had impact. Mora asked Garcia how he was feeling, and Garcia replied, touching his lonely shoulder.

"He says . . ."

Mora stopped and hung his head, squeezed his eyes tight, then continued.

"He says he feels like a bird," Mora said. "A bird who has had one of his wings cut off. A bird with one wing, who can no longer fly."