06/02/2004 11:00PM

Stephens shrine goes up in flames

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Dr. David Richardson will be watching the 136th Belmont Stakes with more than a casual interest. As a longtime horse owner who was a relative, confidant, and close friend of the late Woody Stephens, Richardson will carry an incredible mix of emotions into the day, in no small part because of a near tragedy that befell him and his family five weeks ago Saturday.

Richardson, a noted Louisville thoracic and vascular surgeon, returned home from the May 1 Kentucky Derby to find his house on fire. Although the outer structure was salvageable, the house was very badly damaged, and many racing keepsakes that Richardson treasured were lost forever.

"My basement was basically a shrine to horse racing," said Richardson. "A lot of the things I had were about Woody."

Woody Stephens, of course, is perhaps the most legendary figure associated with the Belmont Stakes, having trained the winners of five straight Belmonts, from 1982-86. Stephens, who died in 1998, and his wife, Lucille, had no children, and Richardson, whose father was Stephens's first cousin, became a sort of surrogate son.

"I just always knew him as Uncle Woody," said Richardson.

The lengthy list of one-of-a-kind items lost in the fire include framed sets of photographs of all five Belmont winners; an old tack box and footstool painted in the Stephens stable colors of red, white, and black; a set of Stephens's house racing silks; a special collage that included photos and memorabilia associated with Caveat's 1983 Belmont win; and a collage that included a letter from James P. Mills, who owned Gone West, thanking Richardson for selecting and having Gone West bought on his behalf as a yearling.

"I scouted yearlings for Woody and came up with a few good ones like him," said Richardson, now 59.

Other items lost in the fire include the race-day programs for every race in which Mrs. Revere ever ran. Richardson, in partnership with fellow surgeon Hiram Polk, owned Mrs. Revere, a standout filly trained by Bill Mott in the mid-1980's. The Grade 2 Mrs. Revere Stakes is run every fall at Churchill Downs.

"I had programs from New Jersey, New York, Nebraska, Louisiana," said Richardson. "She took us pretty much everywhere."

Investigators believe the Derby Day fire at Richardson's house, which is located near the east end suburb of Indian Hills, was started by lightning. Richardson's wife, Suzanne, has been ill, and she was home when the fire started but was able to escape without incident. Like Richardson, his son and son-in-law both arrived home in early evening, just as the four-alarm fire was raging, and the younger men even attempted to retrieve some of the more valuable things. Firemen ultimately were able to salvage some important family keepsakes, including a decades-old family photo album.

"Looking back, the most fortunate thing is that nobody was injured because it was a very dangerous situation," said Richardson.

For Richardson, the loss of his racing memorabilia is a bitter pill indeed, but one that he already has swallowed.

"Being a surgeon, I see on a daily basis the horrific problems that people have to endure," he said. "I have to be philosophical about this, and I am. Obviously, a lot of the stuff we lost can never be replaced, but nobody got hurt and we're all going to move on."