07/24/2007 11:00PM

Mending a gray's anatomy

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Contrary to any reasonable expectations, Greg's Gold will appear in all his gray-coated glory on Sunday at Del Mar in defense of his title in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap.

Okay, so technically it's not a literal defense, since Greg's Gold actually won the 2005 running of the six-furlong Crosby in a thriller over Battle Won and Taste of Paradise. But give him a break. Greg's Gold didn't even have a chance to answer the bell last summer for the 2006 version of the race.

At the time, Greg's Gold was on the mend, recovering from an injured tendon in his right foreleg. Had he never raced again, Greg's Gold still would have occupied a special place forever in the heart of Bill Boswell, his owner and breeder, as well as Dave Hofmans, his trainer for all but one of his starts.

"What has saved him is that it was his right front and not his left," Hofmans said this week as Greg's Gold stood in the deep straw of his Del Mar stall, begging a visitor for candy.

"Horses bow in their left fore a lot more than the right, because of all the pressure on the turns," Hofmans noted. "Once that happens, even if they make it back, they still have to deal with those turns."

Greg's Gold, a 6-year-old son of Lake George, was making his 13th start in the '05 Crosby. To that point, he had finished worse than first or second exactly once. The Crosby could have been a watershed moment in the life of an upwardly mobile 4-year-old sprinter, so it was understandable that his people were beginning to dream big.

The damaged tendon brought them back to earth with a thud. As injuries go, such soft-tissue injuries tend to signal the end of the line. Any number of remedies have been applied through the years, but the percentage of top horses who return to their previous form is depressingly small. Hall of Famer Ron McAnally, who has dealt with his share, equates a bowed tendon with cancer, as in "incurable."

Until now. Advancements in the application of stem cell technology to equine soft-tissue damage have given a horse like Greg's Gold a second chance. Tendons have always healed, but a traditionally healed tendon was always compromised to some degree by scar tissue. The introduction of stem cells not only helps dramatically reduce scar tissue, it can also regenerate matching tendon tissue. Considerable recovery time is still required, but it is now the quality of the recovery that makes the time worthwhile.

The stem cells harvested for equine tendon therapy come from the host horse itself. In the case of Greg's Gold, they came from the base of his handsome white tail.

"It's pretty amazing," Hofmans said. "I've done it with one other horse - Alex and Me. He bowed in both fronts, and he's come back to run six races, although at a cheaper level than Greg's Gold."

Such operatic stories seem par for the course among California's best sprinters in recent years. Nothing will ever top the soaring highs and desperate lows of Lost in the Fog, the San Francisco-based champion who managed to win with undetected malignant tumors before they finally took him down.

This year's likely Crosby lineup has more than its share of tall tales. Declan's Moon, the 2-year-old champion of 2004, is trying to rekindle a stakes career at the age of 5 and looked good winning a recent sprint at Hollywood Park. E Z Warrior, an unbeaten rumor of a racehorse who has run only three times, was considered the best 2-year-old of the 2006 summer and now has a chance to take his place among the sprinting elite. And then there is Bordonaro, the most accomplished horse in the field, who might have won the 2006 Crosby had he not been accidentally clipped in the nose with a whip.

Greg's Gold was out of public sight from that 2005 Crosby until he returned with a resounding win on Feb. 18, 2007, in a six-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita. Encouraged, Hofmans tossed his resurrected battler into the frying pan for the April 7 Potrero Grande Handicap and watched Greg's Gold finish a gallant second to Smokey Stover, with a troubled trip to boot.

A victory in the subsequent Tiznow Stakes for California-breds on the synthetic surface at Hollywood Park led to an ambitious trip to Churchill Downs for the Aristides Handicap in early June. After 16 starts in his own backyard (13 times first or second), however, Greg's Gold left his best race behind and finished a disinterested fourth.

"He didn't like traveling at all," Hofmans said. "But he's come back to train very well. If he continues to run well at home, I guess it will be a concern later in the year when they run the big one at Monmouth Park."

It should be no surprise that Hofmans and Boswell would consider Greg's Gold for the Breeders' Cup Sprint, to be run at Monmouth on Oct. 27. After all, he was heading for the big show in 2005 when betrayed by his tendon. The Crosby, chock-full of class, will go a long way toward telling them if their dreams deserve a second chance.