05/26/2006 11:00PM

Quirky horse only getting better


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Goodness knows how many miles Bill Shoemaker logged on those 40,350 mounts he's given credit for in all the record books. One thing is for sure - a healthy chunk of them were recorded at Hollywood Park, where Shoemaker won 18 riding titles and eight Hollywood Gold Cups, and where his impact will be honored once again on Memorial Day in the $300,000 Shoemaker Mile.

It should be a rocking good race, especially if the same Silent Name who dusted Shoemaker runners Milk It Mick and Terroplane in the Arcadia Handicap at Santa Anita shows up again Monday. There are fresh troops, though, for Silent Name to face, including the one-two San Francisco Mile finishers Charmo and Aragorn, as well as the French import Diamond Green from Bobby Frankel.

And then there is Willow O Wisp, a son of Misnomer bred in Florida, who seems so comfortable on the Hollywood Park grass that he probably could have handled the course they tore out last fall. After his first seven races at Calder with trainer Michael Lightner, Willow O Wisp nailed his California debut at Hollywood in April 2005, followed that with a narrow loss in the Will Rogers Stakes, then waltzed to a big win in the Cinema Handicap. Last month, he turned in the same kind of performance in winning the Inglewood Handicap, a race that sent positive signals of a full recovery from two eventful road trips.

Be careful, though, using the word "recovery" around trainer Vladimir Cerin. Every step he has taken for the past three weeks has been an adventure - a real festival of pain - as a result of knee replacement surgery.

"Ask me in about two months how I'm feeling," he said.

Cerin, 51, is a native of Croatia who migrated to North America as a teenager and played soccer for UCLA. He now can boast five surgeries on that right knee as a reminder of his days on the pitch.

His horse, on the other hand, feels just fine. Willow O Wisp - "WOW" to his fans - has run nine times for Cerin and owner Robert Alexander, of Las Vegas. His only poor outing came in January, in the Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park, when Willow O Wisp was making his first start since a good try a long way from home in the

Dec. 11 Hong Kong Cup. The Sunshine was too tempting - $500,000 restricted to horses bred in only Florida and California - and Cerin plowed ahead.

"He didn't look quite good enough to race," Cerin says now. "He was a little on the skinny side, because he hadn't completely recovered from his trip to Hong Kong. So it might not have been the best move to run him.

"Then I made the mistake of telling Patrick [Valenzuela] that he didn't need the lead, to take him back," Cerin said. "Once he took him back he ran into a wall of trouble and ended up being way back. He's not the kind of horse who can make up 10 lengths. The race was a complete disaster - mainly trainer error."

Fortunately, Willow O Wisp is a tough dude who can dish it out as well as take it.

"He's still a young horse, only 4, and turf horses don't usually get real good until they're 5 or 6," Cerin said. "But I like his progress so far. Unfortunately, I had to learn a lot about him real quick. He's got some idiosyncrasies that can make you pull your hair out at times."

For instance?

"He gets spooked by certain noises," Cerin said. "Certain frequencies and levels of pitch. They seem to be successfully muffled by the use of sponges in his ears."

Nothing wrong with that. Nijinsky used earplugs going to the post (John Gosden, a "lad" with Vincent O'Brien at the time, was charged with their removal at the barrier). Gate Dancer and Tallahto were two other very good horses with hearing too keen for their own good. Closer to home, there is the earmuffed Cambiocorsa, the budding turf star who won Friday's featured Wishing Well at Hollywood.

"He also doesn't like to be saddled before a race," Cerin said. "As far as he's concerned, he's ready to go. He doesn't need a saddle. We figured out that if you put a pony in front of him he'll follow the pony and not jump up in the air. Otherwise, he could flip and kill someone."

Anything else?

"Not really," he said. "If anything, he's bigger and stronger now, and he's even putting a little more into his workouts. If we let him, he'll work really fast, and willingly."

Willow O Wisp ripped off six furlongs in 1:12.40 around dogs on the Santa Anita turf 10 days before winning the Inglewood. Last Sunday, in preparation for the Shoemaker, he was clocked in 1:12.60 for the same distance on the Hollywood grass.

"That work might have been even better," Cerin said.

Fair warning, then, to the rest of the Shoemaker cast. Watch out for the horse who loves the neighborhood, hears voices in his head, and tries to run out from under his own saddle.