01/12/2006 1:00AM

The stars are aligned for Stevie

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - When last seen by the racing public, Stevie Wonderboy was bidding farewell to the Belmont Park winner's circle after beating a Breeders' Cup Juvenile field that included Henny Hughes, First Samurai, and Brother Derek on Oct. 29.

He's back.

He's back on Saturday and Santa Anita's got him, for a purse of just $150,000 in the San Rafael Stakes, a one-mile race in which Stevie Wonderboy will commence his quest for the Kentucky Derby and beyond. Owner Merv Griffin will be on hand, no doubt sporting his lucky yellow tie, with Garrett Gomez in the saddle and trainer Doug O'Neill quietly in the background, mumbling a fervent prayer that everything goes as well as he thinks it will.

If it does, fans could be in for a grand ride. Stevie Wonderboy has descended upon the game boasting the complete package. He has an entertaining, accessible owner, a born-again superstar of a jockey, and a trainer who speaks in complete sentences, adds punctuation, and sometimes even wonders aloud.

Physically, Stevie Wonderboy is a treat, displaying both length and leg, a handsome enough head, and a dappled chestnut coat that goes liver red in winter and lightens to a coppery sheen when baked by the California sun. His face is easy to remember, since he's the one with the long, nearly symmetrical blaze that somehow leaked a thin little line of white directly over his left eye, as if frozen in perpetual salute.

Family counts, of course, and Stevie Wonderboy is classically connected, with a brace of grandsires who won the Belmont Stakes (A.P. Indy) and the Preakness (Summer Squall). That leaves their grandson to fill in the blank at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

It's a heavy task, bearing the role of early Kentucky Derby favorite as the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. No horse has ever won them both, a cold historical fact in which O'Neill has found at least a grain of comfort.

"Since no one else has done it, how exceptional of a horse would he be if he were to win the Derby?" the trainer wondered (aloud) at his barn Thursday morning. "And if he doesn't do it, you can't really knock him."

If Stevie Wonderboy has an Achilles' heel, it is precisely that - a chronic condition of his left hind heel that receives constant surveillance from his groom, Alfonso Padilla.

"I've had horses with cracked heels irritated enough to make them act lame," O'Neill said. "Alfonso gets the credit for taking good care of that."

After five starts, the last three of them impressive wins, Stevie Wonderboy will be facing a clubhouse turn on Saturday for the first time in his competitive career. There is no reason to believe it will make a difference, though, since he gallops hard into such bends every morning.

Stevie Wonderboy, the subject of such speculation, was at that moment hanging his head over his stall webbing, playing the role of goofy kid by dropping his tongue and daring some dummy to give it a pull. A handy dummy complied. O'Neill sighed and made a mental note: hand wipes for turf writers.

"There's only so much you can control, and so many things can happen outside your control," O'Neill said. "It can be frustrating."

It also separates the merely good trainers from the great. It is the great horsemen who learn to anticipate trouble, play the percentages, and avoid dire consequence. They keep things simple, and they listen to the horse. So far, O'Neill and Stevie have been on the same wavelength.

After the Breeders' Cup was in the books, and Stevie Wonderboy had locked up a divisional championship, O'Neill took advantage of a lull in the schedule to recommend a complete body scan, using nuclear scintigraphy, after the colt returned to L.A. from New York last fall.

"On those things, you can take the soundest horse in the barn and usually something will light up," O'Neill said. "We did think we'd see something, maybe over his back or in his vertebrae, because sometimes he comes out a little stiff in the morning. But, knock on wood, nothing lit up. There were no active areas of inflammation."

Eleven days after winning the Juvenile, Stevie Wonderby was back to work, walking O'Neill's Hollywood Park shed row under tack. The colt commenced jogging on Nov. 14, then started galloping on Nov. 20, each day with a little more pizzazz. He recorded his first breeze, a half in 48 seconds flat, on Dec. 3, then progressed to an easy five-eighths on Dec. 14, a moderate three-quarters on Dec. 24, and then an all-business six furlongs in 1:12.60 on Jan. 5.

"To be honest with you, I really don't know how much this horse needs," O'Neill said. "It will be interesting to see how he runs on Saturday. He trains so strong, and you can see how relaxed he is." Here he pointed at the dangling tongue.

"I do think we have him every bit as good as he was going into the Breeders' Cup," O'Neill added. "But obviously, you don't want him to peak on Saturday. You want every race to be a little bit better than the last, with the hope of having a good, sound horse with something in his tank for a Triple Crown run."