11/22/2001 12:00AM

A medical miracle in the flesh

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When it comes to a tendon, most of the time there is no second chance. The damage can be bad enough. It is the healing that never goes quite right, and the leg is never quite the same again.

Then there is Val Royal.

Every competitive stride he takes is a gift. Every appearance is cause to rejoice. There are precious few horses of Val Royal's quality still running around, and to be doing it on a tendon that was once corrupted by injury is reason enough to show up at Hollywood Park on Saturday for his appearance in the $500,000 Citation Handicap.

A victory could not be more fitting. Citation himself was grounded for 13 months with a tendon injury suffered at Tanforan in his final race as a 3-year-old, the Tanforan Handicap, in December of 1948. It was also his 15th straight win.

When Citation came back, in January 1950, he won again. But he was not the same horse. He had lost a step, which simply meant that he went from unbeatable to occasionally mortal. Citation raced into the summer of '51 and then retired, 50 years ago, as the world's leading money winner and racing's first millionaire.

Val Royal became a millionaire a month ago when he won the Breeders' Cup Mile. But that's beside the point. Millionaires come a dime a dozen these days. Val Royal's greatest achievement has been his recovery, and the level to which he has returned.

He was already very good as a 3-year-old, good enough to win a Group 2 race in France and the Del Mar Derby in his first American start. Now, at 5 going on 6, he is a monster. All it took was 18 months of patience from the people in his corner, owner David Milch and trainer Julio Canani.

A year and a half in the racing business is an eternity, but a year and a half in the life of an injured tendon is just about right, depending upon the extent of the damage. It takes a long time for the fibers in a tendon to grow.

"It wasn't very big, and we caught it pretty quick," said Canani, referring to the size of the lesion detected in Val Royal's tendon.

That was the fall of 1999. Milch had just purchased Val Royal, in the wake of his Del Mar Derby win, from bloodstock agent Hubert Guy. The colt was on the threshold of a potentially brilliant 4-year-old campaign. Instead, he became a candidate for treatment with beta amnioproprionitrile fumarate.

Go ahead. Say it fast three times. Or use one of the street names, BAPN or Bapten. In the human world, BAPN was originally used to reduce scar tissue. After awhile, it was applied to the healing of soft tissue injury. That's when veterinary interest was aroused. BAPN apparently had the ability to help ruptured fibers heal in a healthy, parallel alignment, instead of the grainy, cross-hatching scar tissue that resulted from more traditional tendon treatments.

And so, about a month after his injury was diagnosed, Val Royal's tendon was injected with BAPN every other day for 10 days. Canani kept him at his barn and walked him daily for the next six months. The tendon was regularly monitored with ultrasound to check the healing process. Canani, conservative to the core, walked Val Royal for another couple of months before allowing any light exercise on the track.

"He was tough, I'll tell you," Canani said. "But I never wanted to let him out of my sight. Horses who go to the farm when they get a tendon, you never know what might happen."

Toward the end of 2000, Val Royal went from baby steps to more intense training. In March of 2001 he returned with a second-place finish in the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. Canani's sigh of relief could be heard from the top of the nearby Sierra Madres. He laid out a plan to get to the Breeders' Cup Mile, using the Oak Tree Mile as a prep. On Oct. 27 at Belmont Park, it all came true.

By then, BAPN had been shelved by its manufacturer. In the world of commercial drugs, speed of recovery can be just as important as quality of recovery, and BAPN needed time.

"Our intent is not to reduce recovery time," said Dr. Bill Davis, a vascular surgeon who was instrumental in moving the use of BAPN from humans to horses. "Tendon injuries should not be treated by the impatient."

Welcome, Dr. Davis, to the world of horse racing, where the impatient rule and short term solutions apply. While BAPN was not universally hailed as the ultimate solution to tendon healing, it at least lent hope to the idea that there could be an answer.

Dr. Doug Herthel of the Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic, in Los Olivos, Calif., has been part of a group using a stem cell bone marrow preparation in the treatment of soft tissue damage. So far, their results have been promising. But, like the BAPN process, a lengthy recovery time is required.

"The most important thing that came out of the Bapten program was evaluating ultrasounds in more detail, as part of the healing protocol," Herthel said. "And the other thing was the rehab schedule, which was fairly strict."

Val Royal is living proof that such discipline pays off, even though BAPN is off the veterinary market.

"It's a shame," Canani said. "It was a miracle."

Maybe. But the miracle had a lot of help.