04/03/2007 11:00PM

No getting over some losses

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Now all grown up and looking like a million bucks, the 5-year-old Willow O Wisp galloped past trainer Vladimir Cerin on a warm Wednesday morning at Santa Anita Park. His neck was bowed, his stride light and fluid - the very picture of a horse enjoying his job. After more than 10 months away from the races, Willow O Wisp was clearly sitting on ready for his return, scheduled this Saturday in the Arcadia Handicap on the Santa Anita Derby undercard. Cerin reflexively fingered his cell phone, anxious to share the good vibes with his closest confidante, but that's as far as he got, because he knew, for the 62nd of 62 terrible days, that there would be no answer.

It was on Feb. 1, during a romantic holiday with her husband in the Mexican resort town of Puerto Vallarta, that the vibrant, popular Kellie Cerin died from an apparent heart attack at the age of 51. Such a sudden, merciless reminder of mortality is usually enough to shake the strongest soul, and Vladimir Cerin, an articulate, university-educated native of Croatia whose horses have won races like the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Del Mar Derby, and the Shoemaker Mile, claims no special exemption. One moment he was a loving husband sharing career and family with the woman of his dreams, then in a blink, his world was plunged into cold shadow and confusion.

So what do you do? Disappear into a hole of self-pity? Rage against the darkness? On the face of it, Cerin certainly had the comfort of their four children from a blended family, including 14-year-old Blake, who is a Vladimir-Kellie production. Cerin also had his horses, stabled primarily at Hollywood Park, who were running well through the first month of the Santa Anita meet.

"They say your work can help you switch your mind off to something like this, at least while you're doing it," Cerin said with a heavy sigh as he returned to his Santa Anita shed row with Willow O Wisp. "There was no chance of that for me. By this time, most mornings, I would have called her a dozen times already, sharing everything. I work 16, 17 hours of the day and think of her all the time, because everything I do reminds me of her."

The Cerins were married on Mayo19, 1989, two weeks after Cerin had saddled the first stakes winner of his budding career.

"The wedding was 10 weeks after we met," Vladimir said. "It would have been after the third date, but we had to organize things with the kids."

From the start, their lives were entwined with their horses. Kellie had been winning show-horse competitions since the age of 11, and been a qualified trainer of hunter/jumpers and a riding instructor since she was 17. Once exposed to the Thoroughbred world, she became a resource of great value for owners and trainers who wanted to give their runners the best possible rest and rehabilitation.

In the last two years, with Kellie leading the way, the Cerins joined the cutting edge of concentrated, enriched-oxygen technology for equine illness and injuries, installing a state-of-the-art hyperbaric chamber at their Bradbury ranch, not far from Santa Anita.

Willow O Wisp, winner of the 2005 Del Mar Derby and 2006 Inglewood Handicap, is one of many horses who have benefited from lay-up handling by Kellie Cerin.

"Willow had a problem with a knee after running in the Shoemaker last year," Vladimir said. "There was no fracture, but he needed some time, and Kellie gave him all the attention in the world."

It was Kellie Cerin's devotion to horses that helped fill a Methodist church near Santa Anita for her memorial service, on Feb. 7.

"She was the most selfless person," her husband said. "She never thought she was pretty - and she was beautiful. She never thought she was well liked. And yet there were 17 trainers and 700 other people from racing at the church that day. She never realized the effect she had on people.

"I never knew what she wanted, in terms of donations to something in the event of her death, because I couldn't imagine her dying," he went on. "I just guessed it would have been to CERF [the California Equine Retirement Foundation], which she had supported for so long, so that's what we did.

"Then, later, I was looking through her nightstand on her side of the bed - which is the side I sleep on now - and there was this long, handwritten proposal to raise money for CERF, which she had written back in December. So I guess we were on the right track."

A good race by Willow O Wisp on Saturday would be an appropriate tribute to Kellie Cerin, but right now her husband admits that he's still on "auto-pilot" when it comes to the daily routine. He still can't believe that he will never again share with Kellie the highs and lows of the game, the joys and sorrows of the children, or that occasional, playful, late-morning phone call as he was winding things down at the barn.

"She'd say, 'Hey there, I'm in the parking lot. Wanna get lucky?' " Cerin said. "Lucky is the name of our dog."

He forced a smile, but there was no light in his eyes.

"I know I should feel lucky to have had her for 17 years," Cerin added. "But when your wife is your best friend, too . . . Right now the kids are doing okay. It's dad that's having a really hard time."