09/07/2005 11:00PM

They're singing his praises

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DEL MAR, Calif. - There was havoc on the path to the paddock, unrest on the walk to the track, and a wipeout at the start that rivaled a bad day at Sunset Beach, followed by a breakneck pace that looked like a training film for the Pony Express. As Del Mar Futurities go, it wasn't very pretty.

Then, floating along in a world of his own, a powerhouse chestnut emerged from the chaos, gliding past the leaders with long, lazy strides. The opposition faded from view. His rider stifled a yawn. All of a sudden, the summer season had boiled down to a big colt with a bigger future, and a name that belonged in lights.

Say hello to Stevie Wonderboy.

So far, the package is complete. Stevie Wonderboy comes fully equipped with a serene demeanor, a celebrity owner, and a properly deferential trainer, Doug O'Neill, who stood beneath a clubhouse television monitor in the moments before the race and allowed himself some wishful thinking as he clocked the competition.

"A.P. Warrior is a gorgeous colt, and so is One Union," O'Neill said, referring to a pair of prime contenders in Wednesday's closing-day feature. "But they look like they might be more sprinter types. At least I hope so, because Stevie Wonderboy is the kind of colt who wants to make a long run at them."

O'Neill got his wish, and then some. Not only did A.P. Warrior and One Union hook up for an opening quarter that shaded 22 seconds, they pulled The Pharoah and Bashert along for the ride. Those not being burned on the pace were already racked up at the start by longshot Dinner Magic, who broke from the gate by taking one step forward and about six to the left.

Stevie Wonderboy soared above the fray, galloping along on the outside and making his move widest of all on the turn. By the time One Union, A.P. Warrior, and the others had finished tearing each other apart, Stevie Wonderboy was just getting warmed up. His margin at the wire was five lengths, but it might have been a lot more had Garrett Gomez chosen to run up the score. His final time for the seven furlongs was a solid 1:22.43, eased.

Picking through the wreckage, there are Futurity colts who probably deserve second chances. The Pharoah, fresh in from Calder, bailed out of the hot pace, came around horses, and finished a very mature second. Third-place Jealous Profit, also sent out by O'Neill, was a victim of Dinner Magic, while One Union (fourth) and A.P. Warrior (sixth) ended up running each other into the ground. Even Bashert, who faded to seventh, gets a mulligan. All he did was flip on the way to the paddock, spring a shoe, and then give Rene Douglas fits before he settled into a prerace gallop.

On the other hand, the 2005 Futurity could end up being remembered as opening night of a long-running show. Stevie Wonderboy has the look of a colt who could pull this same trick again and again, while taking his proud owner, Merv Griffin, on the ride of a lifetime.

A minor illness prevented Griffin from traveling to Del Mar on Wednesday. But he was there on Aug. 6, when Stevie Wonderboy easily beat maidens going 6 1/2 furlongs.

"I remember him vividly that day," Griffin said from his home in Beverly Hills, moments after the Futurity. "After the race he wasn't sweating. He wasn't even breathing hard. Doug had warned me early on that this colt would need more distance to show his true ability, and he was right. The farther he goes, the better he'll be.

"I certainly wish I'd been there today," Griffin added. "Doug looks so lonely there in the winner's circle all by himself."

The line for the bandwagon forms to the left. Stevie Wonderboy should have a built-in following, thanks to Griffin's play on the name of his sire, Stephen Got Even.

"Stevie Wonder was just 17 the first time he was on my show," Griffin recalled. "I don't remember what he sang. But if there's a song for this colt, it would have to be" - here he breaks into song - "Isn't he lovely . . ."

Griffin okayed the purchase of Stevie Wonderboy sight unseen.

"Doug's brother Dennis called me from the Fasig-Tipton sale in Florida last February and told me there was this colt he loved that nobody else seemed to want," Griffin recalled. "I told him to go for it. He asked how high he should go, and I told him whatever it takes, if he likes him that much."

For $100,000, Griffin may have gotten a bargain. There have been offers coming in already.

"For a lot more than I paid," Griffin added. "And I'm sure there will be more. But how can I put a price tag on the places this guy could take me?"

As a veteran owner and breeder - not to mention a media and real estate mogul - Griffin knows how fickle the racing game can be.

"Now it's time to really get nervous," Griffin said. "I know what can happen to these big boys on their little ballerina legs.

"But he's got me daydreaming, I'll admit," Griffin said. "I've always wanted to stand in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs and sing, 'Oh the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home . . .' "