03/18/2007 11:00PM

Merv rejoins Derby chase


ARCADIA, Calif. - Racing's cross-cultural exposure got a shot in the arm over the weekend when Cobalt Blue won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park to thrust Merv Griffin back into the Kentucky Derby spotlight.

The accessible, energetic entertainment mogul now becomes the unofficial go-to guy for all things quotable leading up to the May 5 running of the Derby, complete with impromptu serenades of "My Old Kentucky Home" and rat-a-tat reminiscences of racing's glorious past.

Before 2005, Griffin's contribution to racing lore was minor key, comprised mostly of blue-collar winners and the occasional flirtation with a horse of stakes caliber. Then came champion Stevie Wonderboy, winner of the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile in Griffin's colors - white, by the way, trimmed in cobalt blue - and favored in many polls to win the 2006 Kentucky Derby as well.

But Stevie went wrong chasing Brother Derek in the 2006 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, and Griffin's Derby dream died a lousy, on-screen death. It was a hard blow from all angles, but as a self-made, multi-corporate gazillionaire, Griffin can afford to be selectively superstitious and decide that some things are simply out of his hands. So he figured that Stevie Wonderboy sealed his Kentucky Derby fate by taking the BC Juvenile, a race with a 0-for-21 history of predicting Derby winners.

On the same day Cobalt Blue won the San Felipe, 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense made a victorious 3-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Derby, both races run at 1 1/16 miles. The news was not lost on Griffin.

"I'm very realistic about getting to the Derby," Griffin said Monday morning from his L.A. office. "I went through it last year. But will the Breeders' Cup curse still hold? This time, I'm praying it does. As a matter of fact, I'm kneeling as we speak.

"I know the surfaces were different, and maybe the competition," Griffin added. "But Cobalt Blue won his race by two lengths, and the Breeders' Cup winner won his race by only a nose, in slower time. I know the Derby is a whole different kind of race. I also know that our guy has a whole lot left in the tank."

As if he had nothing better to do than keep track of a bunch of 3-year-old horses running in circles. Griffin's business life is personified by The Griffin Group, made up of Merv Griffin Entertainment, the Merv Griffin Hotels, the Worldwide Real Estate brokerage firm, the Griffin Ranch real estate development in La Quinta, Calif., and Teleview Racing Patrol, the closed circuit video company owned by Griffin since 1968.

None of those endeavors, however, promises the chance of standing on the winner's stage at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, which is why the multi-tasking Griffin will be Cobalt Blue crazy, at least for the next six weeks or so. And since neither Britney nor Paris seems to be investing their hard-earned entertainment dollars in the racing business, Griffin's heartfelt and hard-earned enthusiasm for the chase will have to satisfy racing's celebrity hunger.

"I suppose my name associated with this colt will create a little more attention," Griffin said. "And that's fine with me. It's good for the game. I'd love to get more celebrities involved."

While there have been ownership flirtations through the years from such heavyweight stars as Robert de Niro and Kevin Costner, not to mention the M.C. Hammer era of the early 1990's, no episode was more entertaining than the Telly Savalas-Rod Steiger showdown in late December 1974.

Savalas, on a roll at the time as TV's sucker-waving New York detective "Kojak," had been making racing headlines since the previous summer with his rags to riches gelding Telly's Pop, winner of the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes. Racing publicists never had it so good, as Savalas waxed romantic about his horse to Johnny Carson and anyone else who pointed a camera his way.

At the same time, Oscar winner and tough guy Steiger was partners in Stained Glass, another precocious West Coast 2-year-old. Though not as accomplished as Telly's Pop, Stained Glass was on the rise as the season ended, which made the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita the perfect spot for a collision. Both Savalas and Steiger talked smack for days leading up to the race, and if the bad blood wasn't real, it surely was good acting. When Stained Glass defeated Telly's Pop, Steiger turned to the huge Savalas entourage in the Santa Anita box seats and unfurled a single digit salute that spoke volumes.

Don't look for such dramatics from Griffin. He is, after all, a singer by trade and an artist at heart. Cobalt Blue, a son of Golden Missile with two wins this year and one more Derby prep before the big day, could turn out to be Griffin's Thoroughbred masterpiece.

"I punched in his name on the Internet," Griffin said, "and after all the stories about his win the other day, there was a bunch of stuff from the fashion business, and all these designers saying how cobalt blue was the 'new' color for the spring. Wouldn't that be something?"