09/30/2003 12:00AM

'Luck' and skill beat an injury

After Designed for Luck (above) injured his hock last year, trainer Vladimir Cerin thought the horse might never run again - much less be pointing toward the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Mile.

ARCADIA, Calif. - By any reasonable standard, Designed for Luck should not be racing this fall, certainly not as a candidate for the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

A mysterious hock injury to his left hind leg in May 2002 was so damaging, trainer Vladimir Cerin said, that veterinarians told him the gelding seemed destined for life in a pasture, not even fit enough to ride.

But the riding-horse days will have to wait. Much to the amazement of Cerin and owners David and Holly Wilson, Designed for Luck has recovered from the injury to become a stakes winner this year.

Designed for Luck has won both of his starts since returning to racing in August at Del Mar - he was promoted from second to first in an allowance race at Del Mar on Aug. 18 and scored a stylish win in the minor Live the Dream Handicap at Del Mar on Sept. 10.

The win in the latter race gave Cerin and the Wilsons an excuse to dream of the Breeders' Cup Mile, a race they have never tried.

To prove that Designed for Luck belongs at that level, they are using Sunday's Grade 2, $300,000 Oak Tree Mile at Santa Anita as a prep. The race will be a stern test because of the presence of Special Ring, a top American hopeful for the BC Mile.

The comeback can be credited to the patience of the Wilsons, to a homemade training regiment designed by Cerin and his wife, Kellie, and to the 6-year-old gelding, a former claimer who makes his seventh appearance in a graded stakes Sunday.

"The owners could have quit a long time ago," Cerin said. "But we have a bunch of them that we haven't quit on. My wife and I love horses, and we don't like to give up on them."

The source of the injury remains a mystery, but Cerin and veterinarian Kurt Hoffman are convinced that a mishap occurred during a van ride from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park in advance of the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile in May 2002.

"I had been at Santa Anita that morning," Hoffman said. "I saw him going on the van and he was sound. I got a page from Vladimir saying the horse was lame. If you looked down on the point of the hock, he'd split that thing. There was a big fracture."

Hoffman advised against surgery to insert stabilizing screws, worried about how Designed for Luck would respond in the moments following the operation.

"He could have torn it up," Hoffman said. "I thought if we kept the horse quiet and nothing further would happen, it could knit back together."

Hoffman never considered the injury life-threatening, but an additional X-ray three weeks later did reveal that the fracture had intensified.

"I told Vlado I really thought we were done," said Hoffman, a practicing veterinarian for 21 years. "I didn't think he could make it back. I thought we were cooked. I wasn't concerned for his life, I was concerned for his racing career."

Cerin took Designed for Luck to his home in Bradbury, which includes property for horses, and began to develop a plan.

Using a magnetic pulsating machine on Designed for Luck several times a week, the Cerins began to treat the gelding.

The magnetic pulsating machine "seems to speed up the body's ability to heal," Cerin said. "There's no pain associated with it and no reduction of pain associated with it. We used it on him every day for six weeks."

Time was a big factor as well.

"We X-rayed nine months later and the space had been filled in, and the fracture closed itself and then healed," Cerin said. "The bones had rejoined."

At that point, Designed for Luck resumed training, only to go out again a few months later with a popped splint.

"We trained on him for a while, gave him another couple of months off, and trained on him for a while longer," Cerin said. "And guess what? Here he is."

Cerin considered waiting for Oct. 25 for the horse's next race, but he has decided a prep in the Oak Tree Mile is vital before the Breeders' Cup.

"He has to hit the board and look good doing it," Cerin said of his expectations. "More important than that, five or six days after the race he needs to be jumping out of his skin and ready to run.

"I'd like to have the opportunity to find out how much he needs to improve," the trainer said. "Maybe he doesn't. He won that last race so convincingly he might have had quite a bit left in the tank. It will be a good test."

A winner of 8 of 20 starts and $424,320, Designed for Luck was claimed at David Wilson's request for $62,500 in December 1999, the day he won a six-furlong sprint on the main track at Hollywood Park.

Most of Designed for Luck's career earnings have come on turf. He won the Grade 3 Ascot Handicap at Bay Meadows in October 2000 and was third in the Grade 2 Frank Kilroe Mile in 2002.

He is well remembered as the disqualified winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on Nov. 26, 2000, Cerin's 46th birthday. Designed for Luck was demoted for causing interference in the stretch.

Nearly three years and a severe injury later, Designed for Luck is back competing at the highest level, much to the satisfaction of his trainer.

"There was no reason to quit," Cerin said. "If you're a horse trainer, you don't quit."